Dear ___________

by pieces of moments

I adore letters. Real, paper/pen/pressure from a physical hand, letters. A physical letter (as opposed to an email) represents to me some kind of nearly mystical connection between two points on a map and two (or more) people. One moment it is there in the hand of A and * presto! * within a day or a few it is in the hands of B. Somewhere on that paper the two meet. Magical, isn’t it?

I often wonder what the decline of old school letter writing will mean for musicians 200 years from now who might be curious about the correspondence of composers who will by then be the legends of our time. Certainly there are delightful movements to save the art, like the Letter Writers Alliance, but I seriously doubt that we’ll see the collected letters of say, Helmut Lachenmann, or Mason Bates, or Frederic Rzewski, sitting on library shelves bound and ready for perusal in the future. Everyone emails, Twitters, talks on the phone, or just flies to wherever. Certainly, we will have some records from composers who keep regular social correspondence via frequently updated blogs, like Nico Muhly, but still that is not the same as old school letters.

The charm of old letters is that you are, in a way, snooping. It’s a private affair conducted on a little square of crushed tree, a kind of transcription of a whisper, not usually meant to be shared broadly. Old letters allow the reader a piercing glimpse into the inner life of the author, allow for a reading between the lines, far more than even the best biography.

I encourage you, if you are thus inclined, to search out collected letters of composers. They are very easy to find at your local bookstore, library, online shop, or even (in some cases) as a free download online. You will find that getting to know them from the inside out will affect the way you hear their compositions. You begin to empathize with them as people and not merely know of them as geniuses, important historical figures, or composers of music you may, or may not like or understand. Why not strive for three dimensional listening? Your perspective, the performer’s interpretation, and the empathy with the inner life of the composers, all at your disposal – all for the enrichment of your auditory life.

To get you started, below are a couple of excerpts from the letters of Mozart and Beethoven (each available online for free via Project Gutenberg).

(I also recommend the letters of Chopin or the diaries of Prokofiev for starters.)

Milan, Jan. 26, 1770.

I REJOICE in my heart that you were so well amused at the
sledging party you write to me about, and I wish you a thousand
opportunities of pleasure, so that you may pass your life
merrily. But one thing vexes me, which is, that you allowed Herr
von Molk [an admirer of this pretty young girl of eighteen] to
sigh and sentimentalize, and that you did not go with him in his
sledge, that he might have upset you. What a lot of pocket-
handkerchiefs he must have used that day to dry the tears he shed
for you! He no doubt, too, swallowed at least three ounces of
cream of tartar to drive away the horrid evil humors in his body.
I know nothing new except that Herr Gellert, the Leipzig poet,
[Footnote: Old Mozart prized Gellert’s poems so highly, that on
one occasion he wrote to him expressing his admiration.] is dead,
and has written no more poetry since his death. Just before
beginning this letter I composed an air from the “Demetrio” of
Metastasio, which begins thus, “Misero tu non sei.”

The opera at Mantua was very good. They gave “Demetrio.” The
prima donna sings well, but is inanimate, and if you did not see
her acting, but only singing, you might suppose she was not
singing at all, for she can’t open her mouth, and whines out
everything; but this is nothing new to us. The seconda donna
looks like a grenadier, and has a very powerful voice; she really
does not sing badly, considering that this is her first
appearance. Il primo uomo, il musico, sings beautifully, but his
voice is uneven; his name is Caselli. Il secondo uomo is quite
old, and does not at all please me. The tenor’s name is Ottini;
he does not sing unpleasingly, but with effort, like all Italian
tenors. We know him very well. The name of the second I don’t
know; he is still young, but nothing at all remarkable. Primo
ballerino good; prima ballerina good, and people say pretty, but
I have not seen her near. There is a grotesco who jumps cleverly,
but cannot write as I do–just as pigs grunt. The orchestra is
tolerable. In Cremona, the orchestra is good, and Spagnoletta is
the name of the first violinist there. Prima donna very passable
–rather ancient, I fancy, and as ugly as sin. She does not sing
as well as she acts, and is the wife of a violin-player at the
opera. Her name is Masci. The opera was the “Clemenza di Tito.”
Seconda donna not ugly on the stage, young, but nothing superior.
Primo uomo, un musico, Cicognani, a fine voice, and a beautiful
cantabile. The other two musici young and passable. The tenor’s
name is non lo so [I don’t know what]. He has a pleasing
exterior, and resembles Le Roi at Vienna. Ballerino primo good,
but an ugly dog. There was a ballerina who danced far from badly,
and, what is a capo d’opera, she is anything but plain, either on
the stage or off it. The rest were the usual average. I cannot
write much about the Milan opera, for we did not go there, but we
heard that it was not successful. Primo uomo, Aprile, who sings
well, and has a fine even voice; we heard him at a grand church
festival. Madame Piccinelli, from Paris, who sang at one of our
concerts, acts at the opera. Herr Pick, who danced at Vienna, is
now dancing here. The opera is “Didone abbandonata,” but it is
not to be given much longer. Signor Piccini, who is writing the
next opera, is here. I am told that the title is to be “Cesare in


Noble of Hohenthal and attached to the Exchequer.


Bologna, August 21, 1770.

I AM not only still alive, but in capital spirits. To-day I took
a fancy to ride a donkey, for such is the custom in Italy, so I
thought that I too must give it a trial. We have the honor to
associate with a certain Dominican who is considered a very pious
ascetic. I somehow don’t quite think so, for he constantly takes
a cup of chocolate for breakfast, and immediately afterwards a
large glass of strong Spanish wine; and I have myself had the
privilege of dining with this holy man, when he drank a lot of
wine at dinner and a full glass of very strong wine afterwards,
two large slices of melons, some peaches and pears for dessert,
five cups of coffee, a whole plateful of nuts, and two dishes of
milk and lemons. This he may perhaps do out of bravado, but I
don’t think so–at all events, it is far too much; and he eats a
great deal also at his afternoon collation.





Some years ago your Highness was pleased to grant a pension to my father,
the Court tenor Van Beethoven, and further graciously to decree that 100 R.
Thalers of his salary should be allotted to me, for the purpose of
maintaining, clothing, and educating my two younger brothers, and also
defraying the debts incurred by our father. It was my intention to present
this decree to your Highness’s treasurer, but my father earnestly implored
me to desist from doing so, that he might not be thus publicly proclaimed
incapable himself of supporting his family, adding that he would engage to
pay me the 25 R.T. quarterly, which he punctually did. After his death,
however (in December last), wishing to reap the benefit of your Highness’s
gracious boon, by presenting the decree, I was startled to find that my
father had destroyed it.

I therefore, with all dutiful respect, entreat your Highness to renew this
decree, and to order the paymaster of your Highness’s treasury to grant me
the last quarter of this benevolent addition to my salary (due the
beginning of February). I have the honor to remain,

Your Highness’s most obedient and faithful servant,


Court Organist.



Vienna, April 22, 1801.

You have indeed too good cause to complain not a little of me. My excuse is
that I have been ill, and in addition had so much to do, that I could
scarcely even think of what I was to send you. Moreover, the only thing in
me that resembles a genius is, that my papers are never in very good order,
and yet no one but myself can succeed in arranging them. For instance, in
the score of the concerto, the piano part, according to my usual custom,
was not yet written down; so, owing to my hurry, you will receive it in my
own very illegible writing. In order that the works may follow as nearly as
possible in their proper order, I have marked the numbers to be placed on
each, as follows:–

Solo Sonata,  Op. 22.
Symphony,     Op. 21.
Septet,       Op. 20.
Concerto,     Op. 19.

I will send you their various titles shortly.

Put me down as a subscriber to Sebastian Bach’s works, and
also Prince Lichnowsky. The arrangement of Mozart’s Sonatas as quartets
will do you much credit, and no doubt be profitable also. I wish I could
contribute more to the promotion of such an undertaking, but I am an
irregular man, and too apt, even with the best intentions, to forget
everything; I have, however, mentioned the matter to various people, and I
everywhere find them well disposed towards it. It would be a good thing if
you would arrange the septet you are about to publish as a quintet, with a
flute part, for instance; this would be an advantage to amateurs of the
flute, who have already importuned me on the subject, and who would swarm
round it like insects and banquet on it.

Now to tell you something of myself. I have written a ballet
[“Prometheus”], in which the ballet-master has not done his part so well as
might be. The F—- von L—- has also bestowed on us a production which by
no means corresponds with the ideas of his genius conveyed by the newspaper
reports. F—- seems to have taken Herr M—-  as his ideal
at the Kusperle, yet without even rising to his level. Such are the fine
prospects before us poor people who strive to struggle upwards! My dear
friend, pray lose no time in bringing the work before the notice of the
public, and write to me soon, that I may know whether by my delay I have
entirely forfeited your confidence for the future. Say all that is civil
and kind to your partner, Kühnel. Everything shall henceforth be sent
finished, and in quick succession. So now farewell, and continue your
regards for

Your friend and brother,