Apr 082017

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


By Doug Briscoe

Born on April 8 were Jacques Brel and Mary Pickford, opera singers Raoul Jobin and Walter Berry, lyricist Yip Harburg, composer Giuseppe Tartini, and more. With a couple of exceptions we’ll present them in the order of their births.

Giuseppe Tartini (8 April 1692 – 26 February 1770) was one of the most important violinists in history. The story has it that on hearing the playing of Veracini in 1716 he was so abashed at his own skill level that he locked himself away to practise intensively. Ten years later he opened a violin school that became a lodestone for students from all over Europe. He wrote at least 135 violin concerti and many sonatas, along with a Miserere, a Stabat Mater, and a smattering of other works. Tartini, besides being a highly skilled fencer, was also a seminal theoritician who wrote treatises late in life. He appears to be the first known owner of a Stradivarius violin. The Tartini stamp is from Slovenia because he was born (into an old aristocratic family) at Piran (Pirano in what was then the Republic of Venice).

Greek poet Dionysios Solomos (1798 – 9 February 1857) is particularly celebrated as the author of the long poem the first three verses of which were adopted as the Greek national anthem in 1865. Born in Zakynthos, he studied in Italy from 1808 to 1818, writing his first poems in that language. On his return to Greece he began to write in demotic Greek, for which there was little or no established precedent. Solomos was thus a pioneer in that area. He wrote the Hymn to Liberty in 1823, a product of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, and an Ode to the death of Lord Byron. Later he lived on Corfu, and toward the end of his life turned once again to composing his verses in Italian.

We move forward in time nearly seventy years from the birth of Solomos to that of Australian landscape painter Sir Arthur Streeton (8 April 1867 – 1 September 1943). He was one of the two painters, the other being Walter Withers, who were described by a Melbourne art critic as members of what he called the “Heidelberg School”, a term that has to some extent been supplanted by “Australian Impressionism”. I suppose that change may be due in part to the misconception that the Heidelberg in question is the city in Germany, whereas in this context it is actually a suburb of Melbourne. Streeton made a number of trips to England beginning in 1897 and volunteered at the age of 48 for the Royal Army Medical Corps, along with compatriot artists such as Tom Roberts. In his paintings done at the front, however, he eschewed military scenes in favor of his wonted landscapes. Streeton was knighted in 1937. From 1908 he was married to the Canadian violinist Nora Clench, who chose to give up her career at that point. As indicated on the stamp, the design gives us a detail from Streeton’s Land of the Golden Fleece (1926).

Ironically, “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford (1892 – May 29, 1979), was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto. She started on the stage in childhood when her widowed mother took in a theater manager as a border. Soon the whole family (mother and two siblings) was touring the United States. D. W. Griffith was struck by her screen test, and she appeared in 51 films (many of them in bit parts) in 1909 alone. She became hugely popular and famously co-founded United Artists with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, to whom she was married from 1920 to 1936. (She became an American citizen upon her marriage to Fairbanks, recovering dual nationality late in life.) Pickford was unable to maintain her success in the talkies, and she became reclusive and alcoholic, but lived on to the age of 87.

American lyricist Yip Harburg (April 8, 1896 – March 5, 1981) wrote all the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz, as well as to such enormous hits as “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. Born Isidore Hochberg to Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, he adopted the name Edgar Yipsel Harburg. He went to high school with George Gershwin and City College with Ira. Harburg’s first big hit was “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932) with music by Jay Gorney. They were hired by Paramount, and Harburg went on to work with composers Harold Arlen (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady”), Vernon Duke, and Jerome Kern, among others. As a socialist, he was blacklisted from Hollywood for twelve years (1950-62), but worked sporadically on Broadway. Yip Harburg was killed in a head-on car crash on Sunset Boulevard.

Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin (April 8, 1906 – January 13, 1974) made his debut in 1930 at the Paris Opéra, singing Tybalt in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. After a return to Canada in the early 30s Jobin enjoyed a successful career centered in France that lasted until the war broke out, whereupon he returned to North America, appearing at the Met in 1940. He was with the company for a further ten years. Though specializing in the French repertory, he also took on the roles of Lohengrin and Walther.

Another superlative singer, although his repertoire was very different indeed, was Viennese-born Walter Berry (8 April 1929 – 27 October 2000). Known particularly for his idiomatic Mozart (on the stamp he is shown as Papageno from The Magic Flute), he also concentrated on 20th-century opera, creating roles in works by Rolf Liebermann, Werner Egk, and Gottfried von Einem, besides appearing in Wozzeck, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, etc. Nor did he eschew the Romantic literature, having won plaudits for his work in Fidelio, Carmen, Lohengrin, and so on. He was associated with the Vienna State Opera, where he made in his debut in 1947, for almost the entirety of his career, though he gave many performances at the Met—first with Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1966—in the 60s and 70s. He was married to Christa Ludwig (whose birthday was just last month—March 16th) from 1957 to 1970. His stamp, like hers, comes from the 1969 Vienna State Opera issue.
It’s not customary on these Arts pages for us to discuss athletes, but Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie (1912 – 12 October 1969), after winning gold medals in the Winter Olympics of 1928, 1932, and 1936, went on to a successful if rather brief career in the movies (1936-1948) as one of the highest paid actresses of her day. She died of leukemia while on a commercial flight from Paris to Oslo.


Just yesterday we saw a stamp of Ravi Shankar that comes from the same set as this one for singer Kumar Gandharva, a performer in the classical Hindustani tradition. Viewed as a child prodigy, Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath (1924 – 12 January 1992) earned the name Gandharva (given to skilled singers) at an early age. His career was interrupted when he fell ill with tuberculosis but he resumed singing after being treated with streptomycin in the early 1950s. Gandharva developed unconventional views on performance practice.

A singer much better known in the West is Jacques Brel (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978), though I suppose most people assume he was French. In fact he was Belgian, born and bred in Brussels, and even occasionally sang in Dutch. He began writing his own songs in 1952 and gradually achieved success with his albums and tours. He gave no more concerts after 1968, though he made four more albums, and in the meanwhile had begun his film career. He acted in ten movies, two of which he also directed. Jacques Brel died of lung cancer at 49.
On this date in 1703 the Genoese painter Domenico Piola (born on an unknown date in 1627) died. Piola was the most significant artist in the Genoa of his day, his studio specializing in ceiling frescoes and producing a great many works. Members of the Piola family continued as artists down to the early 20th century. The stamp gives us a detail of Domenico Piola’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1669), which is housed in the Oratory of the Santissima Annunziata in Spotorno, not far west of Genoa.

In 1791 Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch (otherwise known as Chlorofluorocarbon Fasch) founded the Berlin Sing-Akademie. On the 8th of April 1827, after twenty years’ construction, the concert hall was consecrated. Less than two years later, 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn led the celebrated revival performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The hall is shown on a German bicentennial stamp of 1999.

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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