An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Today is the birthday of Georg Philipp Telemann (14 March 1681 – 25 June 1767) and three more composers: Johann Strauss the Elder (not the Waltz King, the Waltz King’s Dad; 1804 – September 25, 1849), Manuel Fernández Caballero, and Ulvi Cemal Erkin. And two painters, one Swiss, one Canadian, share this birthday with a famous cartoonist. It’s also the anniversary of the first performances of Verdi’s Macbeth and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Since Telemann and Strauss are so well known, I’ll limit the greater substance of today’s entry to bios of the others, except to say that Johann Strauss I’s third son Eduard Strauss, who does not have a stamp, happens to have been born 182 years ago tomorrow (15 March 1835 – 28 December 1916).
Manuel Fernández Caballero (14 March 1835 – 26 February 1906) was born in Murcia, the youngest of eighteen brothers! His parents died when he was little, and he was brought up by his brother and first teacher, violinist Julian Gil. The precocious youngster learned violin, piano, and piccolo and was playing in a band from the age of seven. He sang treble in the church choir and later learned to play cornet, oboe, and ophicleide. Still in his teens, he won a contest but had to yield the prize—a conducting post in Santiago, Cuba!—because of his youth. He went on to win a first prize in composition at the Madrid Conservatory and ended up going to Cuba anyway (in 1864) as the conductor of a zarzuela company. There he remained seven years before returning to Madrid. In 1884/5 he traveled to Lisbon and South America, presenting his works with great success. Altogether he wrote something on the order of 150 zarzuelas, as well as sacred music and songs. For a time he was nearly blind with cataracts, but his sight was restored with two operations in 1899 and 1902. One of his melodies—a habanera from La gallina ciega (1873)—was used by Sarasate (whose birthday we just celebrated on the 10th) for his Spanish Dance no. 2. An extraordinary life!
Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853 – May 19, 1918) also lost his parents at an early age (his father at 8, his mother at 14), along with two brothers, who all succumbed to tuberculosis. After the death of his father, Hodler’s mother remarried a sign painter, from whom Hodler got his earliest training. His first work was strictly commercial, but he was determined to elevate his craft and traveled to Madrid to study Old Masters at the Prado. Taking his cue from symbolism and art nouveau, he developed a style he called “parallelism”, emphasizing symmetry and rhythm, mostly in human figures, and often (but certainly not predominantly) in a preoccupation with death that is hardly surprising in view of his early history. The lovely painting reproduced on the East German stamp of 1967, Portrait of Madame de R. (1893), does not really give an idea of the typical flavor of Hodler’s work, nor does the Self-Portrait (one of many, this one from 1891) seen on a Swiss stamp of 1953, although one can perceive there some of his characteristic force.
A painter from across the sea was the Québécois Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888 – March 2, 1970). He specialized in landscapes, concentrating on scenes around the St. Lawrence Valley. He had studied in Montreal and at the Art Institute of Chicago. The stamp gives us a work very much in keeping with his style, with its rich if subtle palette of colors and thick use of line: At Baie-Saint-Paul (1939). Today at Baie-Saint-Paul one can see a powerful bust of the artist by Jean Julien Bourgault.
Partly as a result of Kemal Atatürk’s drive for Westernization, young Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906 – September 15, 1972) was given a scholarship to study music in Paris (yes, yes, with Nadia Boulanger, among others). There he wrote his first compositions. On the suggestion of Alfred Cortot, Erkin wrote a piano concerto that won a prize put up by the Kemalist Republican People’s Party and was performed in both Ankara and Berlin in 1943. He went to a career of such distinction that he was one of a group of prominent Turkish composers that came to be known as The Turkish Five, whose work is marked by Western symphonic style with folk and modal infusions.
American cartoonist Hank Ketcham (born Henry King Ketcham in Seattle on March 14, 1920) was the creator of Dennis the Menace, basing the little rascal on his own son, with father figure Henry Mitchell resembling himself. Sadly, the real Dennis has had a troubled life from the death of his mother to a drug overdose when he was 12 and from PTSD following his service in Vietnam. Hank Ketcham drew Dennis the Menace from 1951 to 1994, thereafter devoting himself to painting. Since then the strip has been maintained by Ketcham’s former assistants Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand. Henry Ketcham died on June 1, 2001.
Again with the Verdi opera premieres! Today it’s Macbeth, set to another Francesco Maria Piave libretto and first heard on 14 March 1847 at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence.
On the day Manuel Cabellero was celebrating his fiftieth birthday in South America, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado had its première in London’s Savoy Theatre, 14 March 1885. It ran for 672 performances.
And appy birfdye to Sir Michael Caine (born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933)!
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.