Very Truly Yours
July 20, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Recently I was writing a program note about Mozart’s First Flute Concerto, and in the note, I mentioned a piece of correspondence between Mozart and his father, Leopold. In it, young Mozart explains to his father—who was very cross, indeed—that he hadn’t finished a commission for some flute pieces because he did not like the instrument. While this was probably not true, and it was more likely that Wolfgang was dragging his feet because he was lovesick over a girl (his future sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber), it offers an interesting insight into Mozart’s life and his relationship with his father. Many of their letters exist—more than a thousand among the members of the Mozart family—and they show sides of Mozart we could not guess just from his compositions or his official documents. A recent collection of Wolfgang Mozart’s correspondence, with his father and with others, is called appropriately, A Life in Letters.
We must remember of course that for centuries, written letters were the primary form of communication over distance. The first publication of any of Mozart’s letters dates from the 1820s, and was not so much a collection, but more of a biography in Mozart’s own words. It was compiled by Mozart’s widow Constanze and her second husband. They took pains to smooth out some of the rough edges of Mozart’s personality and to paint him in the best light. Subsequent publications have adopted a more warts-and-all attitude to their collections.
It is fortunate that so much correspondence has survived not just from Mozart, but from many composers. These letters give us a little glimpse into the lives of composers and their relationships with family and friends. Mozart’s correspondence with his father, for example, reveals so much about their family dynamics. We also have letters from Mozart to his beloved sister Nannerl and to his mother. These primary source documents allow an artist to speak in his or her own words, and they allow us to “listen in” on the conversation. The genesis of a project might be discussed, or the price for a commission. A doctor might address a health issue, or a loved one might be giving bad news. In short, we see nothing more or less than the real life of a composer that we may sometimes forget is an actual human being.
Mozart, for example, often had money troubles. In one example from mid-1789, Mozart and his wife had both been ill, and he was not able to work. Mozart sent a letter to fellow freemason Michael Puchberg asking for some help until he was back on his feet:
“It depends solely on you, my only friend as to whether you are willing or able to lend me a further 500 florin. Until my affairs are all sorted out, I’d be grateful if I could repay you at a rate of 10 florins a month; and then—in a few months’ time at the very most—I’ll repay the whole sum with whatever interest you like and at the same time declare myself you debtor for life, which I shall unfortunately always have to remain, as I’ll never be in a position to thank you sufficiently for your friendship and love…”
* * *
The telegraph was invented after the deaths of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, and the letters of these and many others were written before the invention of even the telephone. And even with the speed advancement of the telegraph and telephone, collections of composers’ telegrams never materialized the way collections of letters did. They were too short to convey anything but the most basic information and certainly didn’t reveal the inner thoughts of the sender. For those composers whose letters survive, we often have lengthy correspondence not just with friends and family, but with publishers, patrons, journalists, copyists, artistic directors, theater administrators, and physicians.
But even a single letter can be intriguing. In 1812, Beethoven wrote a three-part letter to an unnamed woman. He called her simply, his “Unsterbliche Geliebte,” or his “Immortal Beloved.” Since the letters were found posthumously, and no one knew who the addressee was, speculation around the letter grew. From the moment this letter was uncovered, scholars have been guessing the woman’s identity based on clues in the text. Also, in 1950, watermark evidence narrowed things down by giving more details about the physical letter. No fewer than half a dozen women have been suggested as the true Immortal Beloved. In 1994, a Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman, Immortal Beloved, put forth a most unlikely candidate. Although it’s not the only love letter written by Beethoven, it has provided a unique mystery—and a peek into the composer’s heart. Presented to us in so many ways as a curmudgeonly man, we can see from his words that he had a soft side:
“I can only live either wholly with you or not at all, yes I have resolved to stray about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and send my soul embraced by you into the realm of the Spirits….never can another own my heart.”
Frederic Chopin lived a quiet life. He eschewed public performance for a life teaching piano to wealthy and well-connected students and composing as much music as possible. He was also a faithful correspondent. In his letters we see his romantic tribulations with the author Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who went publicly by the name George Sand. We see also Chopin’s yearning for his family and homeland in Poland, the influence of the composers of history and his contemporaries, and the ideas behind the genesis of some of his works.
Chopin’s contemporary Franz Liszt was also a prolific letter writer. His published correspondence includes over six thousand letters to more than a thousand different people. Some of these are simple notes or business transactions, but Liszt did carry on a prolonged correspondence with several people including Carl Czerny who was his teacher, Anton Rubenstein, and Dr. Franz Brendel. Nearly all of his letters, like those of Chopin, seem to bear the mark of Romanticism; they are at times florid and fanciful, full of effusive emotion and yet quite formal in many ways.
The letters we have tell us so much, but the letters that are missing also tell a story. When Robert Schumann died, leaving his young wife Clara a widow, family friend Johannes Brahms stepped in to help. Clara and Johannes remained lifelong friends, sharing a mutual respect and affection that may have strayed into more intimate territory. In 1887, Brahms urged Clara to destroy their letters. This very idea—although not followed completely by Clara—is suggestive. The letters that do survive were published, but the collection is incomplete. It is clear that Brahms definitely had feelings for Clara right at the very start, but he also deeply respected Robert Schumann and did not desire to hurt the Schumanns’ marriage or his relationship with either party. Furthermore, regardless of what may have transpired between Brahms and C. Schumann, Clara remained devoted to Robert even after his death, dedicating her performance career to interpreting his works. Still, the destroyed letters suggest that there is more to the story than we will ever know.
There has yet to be a published correspondence along the lines of “The Emails of A Famous Composer.” Such a thing could happen, of course. Although one wonders if an email—which can be dashed off on a mobile phone in a moment—could possibly capture the depth we see in letters. Who among us hasn’t received the odd one-word-answer email? Would Liszt have bothered to write a letter if it contained only a sentence fragment? It seems unlikely. Some of the information we have gathered from composers’ letters in the past may in the present be available in other forms. For example, in recent years, I have learned about new compositions from interviews that are up on YouTube. I have read blogs by composers in which they discuss their work. I have read print interviews in newspapers and magazines. First person accounts are still out there, but they are admittedly products meant for the public. We don’t get the uncertainty of Johannes Brahms writing to Clara Schumann for advice, or writing to Joseph Joachim for guidance in writing the Violin Concerto. We don’t get Mozart telling his father about how his commissions are coming along, nor do we get Mozart asking sheepishly for money. In short, we lose the intimacy of letters. We lose that peek into the private lives and thoughts of artists. Instead of that we get content that may seem a little more artificial, a little more pre-packaged. We still want to know the inner lives of our favorite artists, but the disappearing art of letter-writing might leave us with “The Texts of A Famous Composer,” or “The Tweets of A Famous Composer.” Charming though they may be, they just don’t sound as compelling.