The opening night of Charles Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1953 © Sedge LeblangMetropolitan Opera Archives

Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Stravinsky — personal letters from the great composers

Often tempestuous, the lives of great composers have long been a source of fascination. An auction of manuscripts and letters from The Metropolitan Opera Guild Collection on 15 June offers new and extraordinary insights

The Metropolitan Opera Guild was born of financial necessity following the Great Depression: the pool of wealthy patrons who had spent generously at the Met had dried up, and only the cheap seats were being filled. 

Eleanor Robson Belmont, the first female member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera, conceived of the Guild with a simple premise: rather than solicit a million dollars from one person, it would seek to raise one dollar each from a million people. With the establishment of the Guild, Belmont declared ‘Democratisation of opera had begun!’

An extraordinary collection of manuscripts and letters, offered at Christie’s in New York on 15 June, plots the milestones of Western classical music from the Baroque era to the 20th century. They tell stories of wealth and power, royal and noble patronage, changing tastes and societal norms — all through the eyes and ears of the world’s most iconic composers.

The majority of the lots offered come from the carefully assembled gift of Edwin Franko Goldman (1878-1956), a composer and trumpeter with the Met. The remarkable correspondences reveal how celebrated composers collaborated, learned from and inspired each other. They also record the grumblings of frustrated creatives —complaining at the treatment of their works by obtuse directors; depressed at the reactions of uncultured audiences; angry at unscrupulous agents withholding payment.

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  • Christoph Gluck, down on his luck

In the 1760s, Christoph Willibald Gluck began a quest to return French and Italian opera to its origins, turning away from Baroque ornamentation to focus on human drama, making words and music of equal importance. The quest was a success: his 1779 opera Iphigénie en Tauride opened to critical acclaim in Paris.

However just a year later, when he wrote this letter, his fortunes had suffered a dramatic downturn. His next and final opera, Echo et Narcisse, left French audiences unimpressed, and Gluck suffered a stroke during rehearsals. 

This note was written after the premiere, in haste to catch the courier, and Gluck describes his irritation at the handling of Echo et Narcisse. ‘I had not imagined the directors of the opera house would treat it so contemptuously, because the profit is theirs,’ he complains. ‘As now I realise they are not well disposed, nothing will come of my return to Paris, for I will not become involved in any more quarrels.’

‘The nobility subscribed [to the concerts], but remarked that they did not care much about going unless I played’ — Mozart

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  • Mozart reports to his father

In this letter to his father, the composer Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opens with an apology: ‘You must forgive me if I don’t write very much, but it is impossible to find time to do so’. After listing 22 concerts and his teaching commitments, he writes, ‘Well, haven’t I enough to do? I don’t think in this way I can possibly get out of practice.’

Mozart also reveals his growing fame in Vienna, writing, ‘Richter, the clavier virtuoso, is giving six Saturday concerts in the said room. The nobility subscribed, but remarked that they did not care much about going unless I played.’

Letters such as this from Mozart to his father are extremely rare — only two have been seen at auction in the past 20 years.

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  • Beethoven’s playful plea for a pen

This good-humoured letter from Ludwig van Beethoven to his friend, Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz (1759-1833), a civil servant and amateur cellist, shows the wit of the composer, and reveals a more mundane aspect of his life: that he needed pens. 

‘Kindly pluck some feathers out of yourself, and put them on us,’ he writes. ‘We have tried to do without you, but we must shortly beg your Mastership to communicate to us the secret of your skill, which we recognise to the full — quills, of which we are at present of want, we have none.’

There are more than 100 letters from Beethoven to Zmeskall, a record of an enduring relationship that continued right up to the composer’s death in 1827. Zmeskall was a great support to Beethoven, providing him with pens, a watch, and small loans. In this letter Beethoven addresses his friend as ‘Seneskall’, poking fun at the pronunciation of his name and at his links to Hungarian aristocracy.

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  • I love your new saxophone — Hector Berlioz to Adolphe Sax

This letter from French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz to inventor and musician Adolphe Sax, dated from around 1852, remembers an important development in Western music: the invention of the saxophone. The saxophone was key to the evolution of jazz in the 20th century, and immortalised Sax’s place in the history of modern music. However, the instrument’s popularity came later; during his lifetime Sax was taken to court by rival instrument-makers, and died in poverty.

Berlioz was an enthusiastic supporter of Sax and his instruments. Of the saxophone he writes: ‘Its principal merit in my view is the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious, sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned, dreamy or melancholic, or vague, like the weakened echo of an echo, like the indistinct plaintive moans of the breeze in the woods and, even better, like the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it has been struck’.

‘[I would] simply deny what your lawyer has said, that at the first performance of Otello, I shouted, hands in my hair, “This is not my Desdemona! Never, never!” ’ — Verdi
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  • ‘I have never stooped to such vulgarities’ — Giuseppe Verdi

This fascinating letter from Giuseppe Verdi to the Italian soprano Romilda Pantaleoni (1847-1917) offers an insight into the personal dramas of life as a composer. Written as a riposte to claims he criticised her performance in his opera Otello, Verdi writes, ‘It is never a happy affair to have to deal, directly or indirectly, with the courts. After all, if I were to be questioned, my report would not amount to much: simply to deny what your lawyer has said, that at the first performance of Otello, that I shouted, hands in my hair, “This is not my Desdemona. Never, never!” I have never stooped to such vulgarities and those words are completely false.’

Verdi had thought Pantaleoni unsuitable when casting the opera, but had been persuaded to hire her by the conductor Franco Faccio, with whom Pantaleoni was intimately involved. Despite his protestations, it seems likely that Verdi did criticise her, if not in the way her lawyers reported. Verdi wrote to Franco Faccio in April 1887, ‘Let’s have no illusions; Pantaleoni was not good.’

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  • Igor Stravinksy muses on his life’s work

Igor Stravinksy wrote this letter to an unidentified recipient about his last classical opera, The Rake’s Progress, which premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1951. Based on the etchings of William Hogarth, the opera’s libretto was written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman — described by Stravinsky as ‘surely one of the most beautiful of libretti’. 

The letter also communicates Stravinsky’s musings on music and opera: ‘I believe “music drama” and “opera” to be two very, very different things. My life work is a devotion to the latter.’