Jan 172017

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

For today’s Arts Fuse piece on stamps of the world, we note the birthdays of Pedro Calderón, Cuban violinist José White, Austrian opera composer Wilhelm Kienzl, seminal Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski, Uruguayan playwright Florencio Sánchez, Indian actor M.G. Ramachandran, Japanese composer and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Ben Franklin.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 – 25 May 1681) was as a playwright successor to Lope de Vega and is believed to be the first poet to write libretti for the zarzuela. He collaborated at least nine times with the composer Juan Hidalgo on such projects. The first, Celos aun del aire matan, based on a story from Ovid, was produced on on December 5, 1660 and is thought to be the oldest surviving Spanish opera.

José Silvestre White Lafitte was born on this date in 1836 (some sources give 31 December in the year 1835, as indicated on the stamp) to a Spanish father and an Afro-Cuban mother. He gave his first public concert as a violinist in Matanzas in 1854 with the visiting American pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The next year White went to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied and taught until 1871, his students including George Enescu and Jacques Thibaud. He earned the praise of Rossini in those years. Back in Cuba, White gave performances with his countryman Ignacio Cervantes, with proceeds secretly going to support the rebels prior to the Ten Years’ War. He and Cervantes fled the country in 1875. White lived in Brazil as court musician for the Emperor Pedro II until 1889, then he returned to Paris, where he died on or around 15 March 1918. José White was one of the composers represented (with his violin concerto) in the Columbia LP Black Composers Series of the 1970s. His most celebrated work, however, was the habanera “La Bella Cubana”.

Among the teachers of Wilhelm Kienzl (17 January 1857 – 3 October 1941) were Eduard Hanslick and Franz Liszt, the musical equivalent of oil and water. It seems Kienzl found the Modernists more congenial, for he subsequently founded a Wagner society in Graz, where he had a directorial appointment, as he had earlier in Amsterdam and later in Hamburg. His first wife was a Wagnerian soprano and his second, following the death of the first in 1919, was the librettist for his last three operas. Apart from his ten works in that form, Kienzl wrote a large number of Lieder, much choral music, a couple of orchestral pieces, some chamber works, including three string quartets, and piano pieces. On his 70th birthday on 17 January 1927, Kienzl conducted his best known opera, Der Evangelimann (The Evangelist), which he had written to his own libretto in 1894. The leading roles were taken on that occasion by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber.

The first of our three actors to be acknowledged today is Konstantin Stanislavski ([O.S. 5 January] 1863 – 7 August 1938). He was born into the extremely wealthy Alexeiev family and adopted Stanislavski as a stage name in order to keep his parents from learning of his déclassé involvement in the theater, despite his having performed from the age of 14 in the family’s own private theater. The secret was not kept long, however, as Stanislavski had become well known as an actor by his mid-twenties. He co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897, but his greatest legacy is the acting system he developed and described in his enormously influential book An Actor’s Work (1938). On a Russian stamp of 2000 Stanislavski (at right) is shown with Vsevolod Meyerhold (seen in a 1916 portrait by Boris Grigoriev), who followed in his mentor’s footsteps as theater actor, director, and producer. Meyerhold’s birthday, by the way, is next month.


Florencio Sánchez (1875 – November 7, 1910) was as a playwright also closely associated with the theater, indeed is regarded as the foremost Uruguayan writer for the stage. Like Stanislavski, he took part in family theatrical productions as a child, but concentrated on sociopolitical journalism in his earlier professional career. He spent a couple of years in Argentina, and it was there that his first play was performed in 1903. Sánchez contracted tuberculosis prior to traveling to Europe and died in a Milan hospital at age 35.

Our next actor is Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran (1917 – 24 December 1987), familiarly known as MGR, an Indian born in Sri Lanka of Malay ethnicity. He began on the stage and moved on to films, appearing in his first one in 1936, although he had no lead roles until the late 40s. In the ensuing decades he became the dominant figure in the Tamil film industry, also directing and producing a few films. Ramachandran was politically active from an early age and eventually served as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. His death from kidney failure sparked rioting and violence throughout the state.

The multitalented Ryuichi Sakamoto (born 1952) is not only a composer, pianist, writer, and actor, but also a dancer, record producer, and activist. He is perhaps best known to American audiences as a composer of film music and an actor, especially as the POW camp commander opposite the late David Bowie in the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, as seen on this souvenir sheet from the Malagasy Republic.

Although devoted here to the arts, we give a nod to the magnificent Benjamin Franklin (1706 [O.S. January 6, 1706] – April 17, 1790) for his famed Autobiography and for his improvement on the glass harmonica, a musical instrument originally consisting of an array of glasses filled with varying amounts of water so as to produce different tones; the improvement aligned bowls of different sizes on a central, pedal-operated spool. Franklin was also said to have composed a little string quartet on open strings, which has been recorded at least once. Of the innumerable stamp designs for Franklin, I show a copy of the very first stamp issued by the United States in 1847. Currently, a used copy of this will set you back maybe $500, give or take.

I can find no stamp for Anne Brontë (1820 – 28 May 1849), the least read, I suppose, of the famous Brontë sisters.

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.


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