What did the great composers get up to at Christmas?

We look at some of their letters to find out...

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What did the great composers get up to at Christmas?
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Music is, naturally, an important part of Christmas, but did the composers themselves give a figgy pudding about the festive season? JS Bach would no doubt have been overworked writing cantatas in Leipzig (and clearly had no time to jot down his memories) while Beethoven all but ignored many a religious festival. However, there were several that did mention Christmas in letters and diaries and we’ve dug up the most colourful and memorable. So did Christmas Eve find Mahler scribbling symphonies? What did Elgar get up to between lashings of brandy? And what was on Mendelssohn’s shopping list? To find out, charge your glass with mulled wine and read on to discover the Christmas musings of music’s ‘Scrooges’ and ‘Santas’.

 

1. Felix Mendelssohn

In November 1843, Mendelssohn (pictured above, looking very festive) moved to Berlin to take up the post of Generalmusikdirector and direct the choir at Berlin Cathedral. Settled into a new home, he celebrated Christmas with his extended family – his wife Cécile and their five children were joined by his brother Paul and his sister Fanny. And Mendelssohn didn’t forget to write to his sister Rebecka, who was in Italy.

23 December 1843

Today is the eve of Christmas Eve, and I will spend it in talking to you, my dear little sister. Our purchases are made, and the arrangements completed. The pair of little pictures which I have been too busy to finish cannot be touched by candlelight, so this is the time for a chat. If only I could have one with you in reality! Christmas Eve is to be kept at our home. The candles are just being put into the chandeliers in the blue room, where the Christmas tree is to stand tomorrow. […] On Christmas Day I have for the first time to conduct the music in the cathedral with orchestra; there is to be a new psalm of mine, ‘To our Salvation’ from Handel’s Messiah, a couple more new trifles of mine, and some chorales with trombone. […] I must say between ourselves that so far I do not expect much from it, but do not tell anybody!

The Mendelssohn Family 1729-1847 – From Letters and Journals; Ed. Sebastian Hensel; Hamlin Press

 

2. Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler was in Leipzig for Christmas 1886, at the start of his contract as Leipzig Opera’s junior conductor. He stayed in the post for two years, but then resigned. The historian and archaeologist Friedrich Löhr, to whom Mahler wrote that Christmas Day, was one of the composer’s closest friends and a lifelong confidant.

25 December 1886

Last night I spent a sad Christmas Eve once again sitting at home all by myself, gazing out, seeing all the windows opposite aglow with Christmas trees and candles. And then I thought of my poor joyless people at home, sadly sitting in the dark, waiting – and then again I saw before me yourself and your family, the old congenial circle, now lost to me […] – then I no longer saw anything because a veil of moisture moved before my eyes, and the whole world, through which I am destined to wander without rest, was blotted out by a few tear-drops.

Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler; Ed. Knud Martner; Faber & Faber

 

3. Johannes Brahms

The year 1890 found Brahms at home in Vienna, writing to his good friend, the pianist Clara Schumann. He spent Christmas Eve with his live-in housekeeper, Frau Truxa, and her two sons. But Brahms’s mind was also taken up with romantic matters – his flirtation with the contralto Alice Barbi was the talk of Vienna.

24 December 1890

How could I be better occupied on 24 December than sitting in imagination beside you at your breakfast table and talking and listening […] and hearing all about the kind and charming things you are preparing. Here next door in my library there also stands a beautiful large tree which will remain concealed until this evening from my hostess’s two darling boys.

We could not have finer Christmas weather. All the trees and bushes are covered with frost and snow and it is a real joy to go out for a walk in the mild air. It was just as beautiful in Pesth where I was a week ago. […] Frl Barbi has told everybody here that you made her very happy through your kindness and friendliness. But I will not detain you any longer. […] Wishing you a very happy Christmas and New Year, Your Johannes.

Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms; Ed. Dr Berthold Litzmann; Vienna House

 

4. Benjamin Britten

As a schoolboy and young adult, Benjamin Britten kept a diary. In 1932, aged 19, he was two years into his studies at the Royal College of Music. That year he described a typical Christmas in his family home in Lowestoft, Suffolk, complete with a pantomime performed by himself and his relatives.

25 December 1932

Church at 8.0 at St Johns with Mum, Beth & Aunt Flo. Walk with Pop in morning. Read in aft. Walk with Pop & Beth before supper. Xmas dinner mid-day. Presents include marvellous Swan ‘Eternal Pen’ from parents. FB [Frank Bridge] sends me a score of [Tchaikovsky’s] Francesca da Rimini.

26 December 1932

Up late by ten. Walk with Pop before lunch. Go to tea at Sewells – Fernande, Laurence & Teddy & Bobby (son) there – with  Aunt Flo & Beth at 4.15. Christmas dinner at 7.15. Afterwards the maids come up & we act Cinderella (Beth, Aunt Flo & I) & various charades.

Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten; Faber & Faber

 

 

5. Edward Elgar

Filled with puns, drawings, and cryptic references, Elgar’s letters make for lively reading. He first wrote to August Jaeger when Novello, for whom Jaeger worked, published Elgar’s overture, Froissart. The pair became the best of friends and Elgar, who nicknamed his friend ‘Nimrod’, made him the subject of the eponymous movement in the Enigma Variations. Elgar and his wife Alice lived in Craeg Lea, a large house in the Malverns, from 1899; its name is an anagram of EAC Elgar.

21 December 1902, Malvern

This is the shortest day so I set forth on the longest letter I ever wrote (to you) a regular Yule-loggy puddingy, Brandy-saucious letter. Christmas, my Boy! Law! Think where we were last year: Düsseldorf no less – & we smoked cigars at 15 pfrg pour la Noblesse in the streets of that city. […] We hope you are well & flourishing both businessily & domestically. I’m no hand at writing letters requiring invention. I can only run on and say things weakly: as thus: – I have had Xmas presents – all Wagner’s prose works (translated) 8 vols &&&&&& the Encyc. Brit. & the bookcase!!!! […] Much love to you all (I must read up Love in the Ency:). A merry Xmas to all at Curzon Rd (limited to No 37). Your austere & learned friend (34 vols & a bookcase) Paracelsus Elgar. (with a pain in his stomach) Mince Pizon.

Letters to Nimrod from Edward Elgar; Ed. Percy M Young; Dennis Dobson

 

6. Claude Debussy

By 1916 Claude Debussy was severely ill, debilitated by the cancer that would kill him two years later. Throughout that year Debussy composed very little, plagued by pain that could only be relieved by morphine. And with the First World War raging in France, life outside his Parisian home did little to lift his spirits. Debussy often wrote notes to his wife Emma, with whom he had a daughter Claude-Emma, even though they lived in the same house.

24 December 1916

In this year of 1916 Father Christmas is at the front and communications are so difficult, he hasn’t been able to respond to my requests. I’ve no flowers or music… Nothing but my poor anxious heart and an urgent desire to see the end of this marking time which is like a premature burial.

This waiting for better days is enough to drive one crazy and if your courage wasn’t here with me I would long ago have gone off to read the communiqués on another planet. Never has your love been more precious or more necessary to me. I worry when you go away! Noël! Noël! The bells are cracked.

Noël! Noël! They have wept too long! Be patient, I beg you, and let me recover until the times return when we can count our kisses. […] Forgive me for loving you. Wait for me. Your Claude.

Debussy Letters; Ed. François Lesure and Roger Nichols; Transl. Roger Nichols; Faber and Faber

 

7. Cosima Wagner

Richard Wagner married Cosima Liszt in August 1870, just over a year after their third child, Siegfried, was born. That Christmas Wagner wrote an orchestral work, the Siegfried Idyll – first known as the Tribschen Idyll after their home – for Cosima’s birthday.

25 December 1870

When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’. I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; R had set up his orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! […] After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly; […] Now I understood all R’s working in secret.

Cosima Wagner’s Diaries:1869 to 1877; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

 

8. Sergey Prokofiev

A gifted and enthusiastic writer, Prokofiev began his diary in 1907 when he was 16. He studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory from 1904-14, and lived in the city in an apartment with his mother. Prokofiev notes in his diary for 1912 that he set himself the challenge of skating around the ponds he often visited a certain number of times without stopping.

25 December 1912

Christmas Day, also Mama’s birthday, but she does not like to talk about it. Because it was a holiday I rose at midday. Mama gave me some scent, and a gold ten-rouble piece. I did not feel like composing, so played through [The Stone] Guest to the end. Interesting. The use of whole tones to suggest horror is absurdly trite, but up to a point it does produce an effect of some kind. And how daring it must have seemed at the time!

In the afternoon I went for a solitary skate. Today I completed sixteen circuits, a veritable feat. A colonel with a young cadet and some ladies stood watching my patient circumnavigation. A light drizzle came on; the ice gleamed, producing a watery reflection of the trees, the sky and my flying figure.

Sergey Prokofiev: Diaries 1915-1923: Behind the Mask; Trans. Anthony Phillips; Faber & Faber

 

 

Illustrations: Alan McGowen

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of BBC Music Magazine

 

 

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