An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Today’s birthday stars are Kenneth Grahame and CPE Bach, and I daresay we’ll be introducing you to at least a couple of the ten other artists born on this day.
The author of The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (8 March 1859 – 6 July 1932), was born in Edinburgh. Although effectively orphaned—his mother died when he was five, and his father, an alcoholic, gave over the children’s care to their grandmother—Grahame grew up in a Berkshire village in very pleasant circumstances, free to explore nature. Years later, Grahame told his stories as bedtime fare to his own son Alastair, whose headstrong character informed Mr. Toad, but who would commit suicide when he was not quite 20.
IMTO ( = In My Trumpish Opinion, the opposite of IMHO), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 14 December 1788) would be regarded as a very great composer even if his dad hadn’t been the even greater Johann Sebastian Bach (whose birthday is later this month). If you don’t know it, try the Concerto for 2 harpsichords in F, Wq. 46, of 1740, which has an f-minor slow movement of sublimely funereal beauty. (This concerto is not to be confused with the fine Concerto for harpsichord and piano in the same key, Wq. 47, of 1788.) There are masterful concertos for cello, for oboe, for flute, besides many for the solo keyboard. His brief, three-movement symphonies and many dozens of keyboard sonatas are full of catchy melodies and wonderful, unexpected turns (Emanuel was known for his penchant for surprising his listeners). There is a splendid Magnificat with an exhilarating opening chorus that, many years ago, was used to signal the end of WCRB’s AM broadcast day (they would continue all night on FM—I had an AM radio at the time). He was enormously prolific, producing a complete Passion every year from 1769 to 1789 (though much of that music may have been reused and, sadly, most of it is lost). All of this leads me to wonder why only a single stamp has been issued in his honor, and that from the Malagasy Republic! (Although it’s from 1988, the bicentenary year of Emanuel’s death, it is only one of a set of composer stamps.) In particular, I’m surprised that his native Germany (East or West) has not seen fit to give us a CPE Bach stamp, especially in view of his bicentennial three years ago. (On the bright side, I suppose, his brothers WF, JCF, and JC have no stamps at all.) Emanuel had a tendency to melancholy—even his many works in major keys tend to wander very quickly into the minor, it seems to me—and this philatelic neglect may perhaps be lamented by your listening to that gorgeous double concerto Largo.
Franco Alfano (1875 – 27 October 1954) is best remembered today for having completed Turandot, the opera Puccini left unfinished at his death, but Alfano was a successful composer in his own right, even if his works are largely neglected today. Ironically, one of his own opera scores (Sakuntala) was thought to have been destroyed in an air raid in World War II, and Alfano recreated it from memory; but the original score surfaced again just a few years ago and was performed in New York in 2013. Alfano was also a strong admirer of Grieg and a pianist who studied with Alessandro Longo, whose 1906 catalogue of the works of Domenico Scarlatti was long in use (until it was largely superseded by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s 1953 effort). So in addition to his operas, notably Risurrezione after Tolstoy (1904) and Cyrano de Bergerac after Rostand (1936), Alfano wrote two symphonies, three complete ballets, a number of substantive chamber works, piano pieces, and songs. His reputation was somewhat tarnished by his admiration for Mussolini (maybe Alfano’s ghost should run for president).
Although a polymath of rare ability, Count Jan Potocki (poh-TOT-ski; 1761 – 23 December 1815) is probably best known as the author of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a colorful tapestry of sixty-six interlocking stories set in Spain and reminiscent of The Arabian Nights. Potocki worked on this novel from the 1790s to 1814, during which time the wealthy nobleman was also occupied as a captain of engineers, an ethnologist, an Egyptologist, and a linguist who also left four volumes of travel writing, among the first modern examples of this genre. In addition, Potocki founded a Warsaw publishing house in 1788 and was a voice for social and other reforms. It seems he was the first person in Poland to ascend in a hot air balloon; this was with Jean-Pierre Blanchard himself in Warsaw in 1790. Unfortunately, the Count suffered from depression and some other form of mental illness that led him to believe he was a werewolf, and he committed suicide by shooting himself with a silver bullet.
By contrast to the highly privileged Count Potocki, the Estonian painter Johann Köler (1826 – 22 April 1899) was born in poverty among the peasantry, but had the good fortune to be able to go to school and to a painter’s workshop and the talent to be elevated from his job as a sign painter to studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Upon graduation he traveled through Europe, imbibing the lessons of Berlin, Paris, and Italy before returning to Russia as an instructor. One of his pupils was the daughter of Czar Alexander II. The 175th anniversary of Köler’s birth was recognized with this lovely pair of Estonian stamps from 2001 showing his paintings The Girl at the Spring (1862) and Eve’s pomegranate (1879-80).
Now we turn to Scottish-born Canadian photographer William Notman (1826 – 25 November 1891). He came to Montreal when he was thirty and set up shop successfully as a photographer. Given the commission to document the building of Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence, he was present with the Prince of Wales at the dedication ceremony in 1860. (I assume the photo on the stamp is of this work.) Apparently the bridge’s namesake was so pleased with the portfolio Notman gave the Prince that she named him “Photographer to the Queen”. He turned this boon into a lucrative international business with offices thoughout Canada and its modest neighbor to the south.
João de Deus Ramos (1830 – January 11, 1896), or simply João de Deus, was one of the foremost Portuguese poets of the nineteenth century. Like so many others we read of in the arts, he first studied law but gave it up for his muse. And like many writers of fiction, drama, and poetry he also worked as a journalist and editor. He tried his hand at playwriting and translated much matter of various kinds from the French. His greatest work is considered to be the Flores do campo, gathered by a friend for publication in 1869.
I said three days ago that we’d be returning often to a set of US stamps honoring American illustrators, and here we are already with Harvey Dunn (1884 – October 29, 1952) of South Dakota, who studied in in Wilmington, Delaware with Howard Pyle. Soon Dunn was seeing his work appear in all the major pictorial magazines, Collier’s, Harper’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, etc. With Charles S. Chapman he opened his own school in Leonia, New Jersey. When America joined the Allies in World War I, Dunn went along as an artist-correspondent with the American Expeditionary Force and began to concentrate on battlefield sketches and other military subjects. He is best known for his prairie scenes, especially The Prairie is My Garden, but the stamp gives us instead Dunn’s Something for Supper. Classical music aficionados may recognize his Schubert Composing The Earl-King.
The Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou, known as Juana de América, was born on this day in 1892 (though other sources commonly give 1895). A lifelong feminist, she wrote and published a prose piece called “Derechos femeninos” (“Women’s Rights”) when she was only 17. Her poetry, marked by its nature imagery and eroticism from her first collection, Las lenguas de diamante (1919), is enormously popular throughout Spanish America. Her long life came to a close on July 15, 1979.
A poet from the next generation was Ruy Cinatti (1915 – 12 October 1986), a Portuguese who happened to be born in London but grew up in Lisbon. An admirer of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Cinatti (full name Ruy Cinatti Vaz Monteiro Gomes) was writing poetry as a teenager. At just 25, he was a co-founder of the anthology series Os Cadernos de Poesia. He studied agronomy and took a government position in Portuguese Timor, where he wrote books on the botany of the region. Obviously a person with a ceaselessly questing mind, he would return to Timor twice more in later years and study local architecture and traditions, in the meantime earning a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford when he was in his forties! His travels took him to other Portuguese colonies: Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Angola, and his love of the natural world, like that of Juana de Ibarbourou, infuses his poems.
The Indian poet known as Sahir Ludhianvi (1921 – 25 October 1980) was born Abdul Hayee in the Punjab. As a young man he moved to Lahore, where he published his first work and edited a variety of Urdu magazines. His statements in support of communism earned him an arrest warrant, and he fled to Delhi, then Mumbai. Himself a Muslim, he always felt greater comfort in a secular setting among a more diversified people. Soon after his return to India he became involved in the film industry, writing lyrics for movie songs. In the timeless dispute over which comes first, the music or the words, Sahir always insisted on the latter, that the music must be tailored to fit his lyrics. And he usually got his way.
Our penultimate paragraph today is a bit unusual in that the stamp was never accepted for publication. As I mentioned here recently, thousands of stamp designs are submitted for approval annually, and of necessity many are rejected. Such was the case, not only for the design, but for the subject altogether, with Dick Sheaff’s proposed design for a stamp for the American folksinger Richard Fariña (1937 – April 30, 1966). Hailing from Brooklyn, Fariña, the child of Cuban and Irish parents, studied engineering and English at Cornell and started writing and publishing stories. In Europe he met Joan Baez’s younger sister Mimi, whom he married in 1963. They formed a duo, sang at the Big Sur Folk Festival, and made the first of their two albums. (A third album appeared posthumously.) Farña died in a motorcycle accident two days after the publication of his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Maybe someday he will get a stamp; meanwhile we can enjoy Dick Sheaff’s unofficial tribute.
We end with just a passing nod to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (March 8, 1841 – March 6, 1935), if only for his eloquent use of the language and his pithy wit.
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.