An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Two American writers from the Top Shelf head today’s birthday celebrations on Stamps of the World: Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams; and we finish up with three well-known actors, visiting in between with a painter and a novelist from Germany, a French auto designer, two Czech composers, a Hindi poet, and a Swiss-born bridge engineer who left his imprint on the American landscape.
We begin, though, with a Netherlandish Renaissance composer who died 500 years ago today. Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450 – 26 March 1517) has not thus far been recognized on a stamp of any nation (unless perhaps one is being issued this year?), but this prolific composer, one of the greatest of his day, was in the service of Emperor Maximilian I for the last two decades of his life, so we present two stamps relative to the emperor. The one from Belgium, showing the emperor receiving a letter, came out on Belgian Stamp Day in 1957. (Side bar: Each country has its own Stamp Day. In the US it falls on July 1.) The Austrian stamp was issued to mark a Maximilian I retrospective exposition held in Innsbruck in 1969 (the emperor’s personal suit of armor being a feature of the exhibit). Heinrich Isaac left masses, motets, instrumental music, and songs in French, Italian, and German, including the well-known “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen“.
Robert Lee Frost (March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963), four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was born in San Francisco. His father died when he was 11, and the family went to live with Robert’s grandfather in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Robert briefly attended Dartmouth College and spent two years (1897-99) at Harvard (he left without a degree on account of illness). In the meantime he had sold his first poem in 1894, but his first books of poetry would not appear until 1913 (A Boy’s Will) and 1914 (North of Boston), and these were published in London, as Frost had moved with his family to England in 1912. When World War I broke out, Frost came back to the US and bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, now a museum and ecucational center called The Frost Place. (Another of Frost’s residences, on Brewster Street in Cambridge, is on the Register of Historic Places.) He taught at several institutions, Amherst College and Middlebury College among them, and won his first Pulitzer for New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes in 1924. (The other Pulitzers were for Collected Poems , A Further Range , and A Witness Tree .) Frost’s poetry has been set by many prominent, mostly American composers, with “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” alone being set by Nadia Boulanger, Louis Gruenberg, John La Montaine, Ned Rorem, and Randall Thompson. The last two have set a variety of Frost’s works, and there are other song settings by Ernst Bacon, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, John Duke, Lee Hoiby (see below), and Vincent Persichetti. Robert Frost was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960 (presented by JFK in 1962) and was named poet laureate of Vermont in 1961.
Did you know (I didn’t) that Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983) published his first story in Weird Tales magazine? Williams was sixteen at the time (1928) and earned $35, equal to about $500 today! The story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris”, appeared in the same issue as a story by pulp magazine darling Robert E. Howard. “Tennessee”, by the way, was born in Mississippi and grew up from the age of eight in Missouri. The nickname comes from his loutish father’s pioneer background. William’s first important play—after a series of nine apprentice works—remains one of his most beloved: The Glass Menagerie (1944). A string of success followed, with Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, but his later life was dogged by box office failures and adverse critical reviews, the death of his partner Frank Merlo, and the resulting depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Several operas were made of his plays, perhaps most notably Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke of 1971. Thomas Adès wrote a work called “Life Story” for soprano and ensemble (1993) on Williams’s texts. The US honored Tennessee Williams on a 1995 stamp.
The German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (26 March 1794 – 24 May 1872) was the son of a painter and engraver. Born in Leipzig, he attended the Vienna Academy, but joined fellow artist Johann Friedrich Overbeck, who had with several others founded the so-called Nazarene movement and gone to Rome in 1815. This school rejected Neoclassicism and looked to resuscitate the inspiration of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. While in Italy, Schnorr at first found particular afflatus in the works of Fra Angelico. He left Rome in 1825 and worked for Bavarian King Ludwig I (the father of “Crazy” Ludwig, the Wagner man), executing frescoes in accordance with the precepts of the Nazarenes. Speaking of Wagner, by the way, Schnorr’s son Ludwig was the creator of the role of Tristan but died young at 29. From 1846 Schnorr was a professor at the Dresden academy and director of the Art Gallery. He died in Munich in 1872. The only postage stamp referencing Schnorr is one showing the portrait he made in 1827 of Archduke Johann of Austria, the raison d’etre for the stamp, and it is not really representative of most of Schnorr’s work.
Our next subject happens to have been born near the city where Schnorr would come to work a quarter-century later, Dresden. Luise Otto-Peters was born in Meissen, about sixteen miles away, on 26 March 1819. She was a social critic and feminist, founder of a women’s news magazine and indeed of the German women’s movement in general. The periodical, Frauen-Zeitung, was shut down by the government in 1852 as a reaction to the revolutionary spirit of 1848. But years later (1865) Otto-Peters co-founded the General Union of German Women. In her earlier years, after the deaths of her parents, Otto-Peters wrote socially aware novels like Louis the Waiter (Ludwig der Kellner, 1842) and Castle and Factory (Schloss und Fabrik, 1846), which painted a bleak picture of the lives of industrial workers. She was honored on a stamp along with three other prominent women’s leaders in 1974.
Josef Slavík (26 March 1806 – 30 May 1833) was a violinist who during his life was celebrated as the “Bohemian Paganini.” When he was only ten, his youthful talent was recognized by the Count Eugen von Würben, whose patrimony included the village where Slavík was born, and the boy was admitted to the Prague Conservatory. At the age of 17 he premièred his First Violin Concerto in f-sharp minor. He served at the Karlsbad court of Friedrich Wilhelm III before embarking on concert tours across the breadth of Europe. In Vienna he was soloist at the Imperial Hofkapelle and met Chopin. He caught the flu while in Pest and died of it at the age of only 27. In addition to a handful of smaller works for his instrument, he completed a Second Violin Concerto (in a minor) in 1827.
Oskar Nedbal (1874 – 24 December 1930) also came to a sad end. A student of Dvořák, he led the Czech Philharmonic for a decade. As a composer he concentrated on operetta and ballet, but also wrote chamber music, piano pieces, etc. The only piece by him that I have in my vast collection is a decidedly dramatic Violin Sonata in b minor, Op. 9 (1892-94). Wikipedia tells us, “Because of mounting personal debts, Nedbal committed suicide by jumping out of a window of the Zagreb Opera House on 24 December 1930.”
Earlier this month we took advantage of the birthday of Gottlieb Daimler to display some pretty stamps of classic automobiles, and today we have a further opportunity with the birth anniversary of Armand Peugeot (26 March, 1849 – 2 January, 1915), whose company started out making bicycles.
We also pay tribute today to Swiss-born engineer Othmar Hermann Ammann (March 26, 1879 – September 22, 1965), who came to America and designed the George Washington, Verrazano-Narrows, and Bayonne Bridges as well as the Lincoln Tunnel. The Verrazano-Narrows has twice been highlighted on US stamps, first in 1964, right after the bridge’s completion, and on a Priority Mail stamp for the 50th anniversary just three years ago.
Like Luise Otto-Peters, Mahadevi Verma (26 March 1907 – 11 September 1987) was an important voice in the struggle for women’s rights, but more, is held in the highest regard as a poet, one of the “four pillars” of the Chhayavaad (neo-romantic) literary movement of the 1920s and 30s. She was born in northern India into a family of lawyers and early on gave an indication of her independence by refusing to live with her husband in the marriage that had been arranged for her when she was six. Well-educated, she attended Allahabad University and earned an M.A. in Sanskrit in 1933. It was around this time that her first book of poetry, Neehar, appeared in publication and that she began her work as an educator/administrator and social activist. She also wrote prose works.
Just four days after William Shatner was born, Leonard Simon Nimoy came into the world. Like me, you probably assumed Nimoy was the older actor by a couple of years, but no, both men were born in 1931, and Nimoy was the younger baby! It seems hard to believe that already two years have passed since his death on February 27, 2015. We revisit the Star Trek stamp sets we saw four days ago for several views of the quadrant’s most famous Vulcan.
Another American actor born on this day is James Caan (born 1940), who can be seen in the background on an “unofficial” Godfather stamp from Tadjikistan. (Tadjikistan has actual, legitimate postage stamps, of course, but this is not one of them.) Coincidentally, Caan was born on the same day—in a different year—as Sterling Hayden (born Sterling Relyea Walter; March 26, 1916 – May 23, 1986), who also appeared in The Godfather as Captain McCluskey, though he and Sonny Corleone never shared a scene.
Today’s Actor No. 3 is the drop-dead-gorgeous Keira Knightley (born 26 March 1985). Ms Knightley, a superior English actress, can be seen (with Parminder Nagra) on an honest-to-gosh genuine British stamp from 2014 celebrating the hit film Bend It Like Beckham. (It just yesterday that we saw another stamp from this set to honor director David Lean.)
Alas there are as of yet no stamps for two great writers, American novelist Edward Bellamy (March 26, 1850 – May 22, 1898) and British poet A.E. Housman (1859 – 30 April 1936), and I hope someday we’ll see a stamp for Bob and Ray (today is the birthday of the late Bob Elliott [1923 – February 2, 2016]).
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.