Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives.
The sheer number of letters that many composers wrote—especially in the days before telephones and computers—is also fascinating. Mendelssohn, for example, is thought to have written between five and ten thousand letters during his lifetime, and his contemporary Franz Liszt undoubtedly wrote that many or more. Did they dash them off as quickly as we write emails? I don’t know, but I often wonder how, with all that letter writing, people like Mendelssohn and Liszt ever had the time to compose music.
This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.