An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Today’s big stars are Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Andy Warhol, and it’s the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Mitchum. Do you love Lucy? It’s her birthday, too, and that of fourteen other creative people on stamps.
The poems of Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) have been set to music nearly a thousand times. Emily Ezust’s exhaustive Lieder Net Archive lists 880 Tennyson settings. These are mostly by British/Irish composers. Besides the usual suspects—Bridge, Britten, Delius, Elgar, Holst, Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, et al.,—there are a great many others, including Arthur Bliss, Rebecca Clarke, Roger Quilter, Richard Rodney Bennett, and the poet’s own wife Emily Tennyson. (Songs on “Break, break, break” and “Crossing the Bar” were both set by literally dozens of composers, most of whom I’d never heard of.) The Americans have not been remiss. Charles Ives, Amy Beach, William Schuman, Ned Rorem, Arthur Foote, Nicolas Flagello, and Augusta Read Thomas are among the examples. There are some interesting surprises in the list of composers, too: Boston Symphony conductor George Henschel, Henry James’s friend Francis Boott, and violinist Mischa Elman! Some other well-known European composers who set Tennyson were Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Paolo Tosti. The Gilbert and Sullivan opus Princess Ida was a parody on Tennyson’s long narrative poem “The Princess”. Finally, one of the most striking Tennyson musical inspirations, I think, is the long recitation or “melodrama” on “Enoch Arden” by Richard Strauss (1897). The first recording, from 1962, features a beautiful reading (though some would argue that it’s a bit overwrought at times) by Claude Rains with accompaniment by Glenn Gould, but there have been many recordings since. Besides singers who have taken on the speaking rôle—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (twice), Jon Vickers (with Marc-André Hamelin), Benjamin Luxon (with Frederick Moyer), and Brigitte Fassbaender—actors Michael York and Patrick Stewart have made recordings with the late John Bell Young and Emanuel Ax respectively. The stamps make up a set of four issued by the UK in 1992 for the centenary of the poet’s death. I know of no others.
Pop Art king Andy Warhol (August 6, 1928 – February 22, 1987) was born Andrew Warhola to Slovakian parents in Pittsburgh. Warhol’s father had come to the US in 1914 and worked in a coal mine. Young Andy began his career as a commercial illustrator, an influence plainly felt in much of his later work. Two of his iconic images frame the portrait stamp that the USPS issued in 2002: one half of the Marilyn Diptych (1962) and Campbell’s Soup I (1968), a variant on his earlier Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). The other three stamps show his portrait of German footballer Franz Beckenbauer (1979), his portrait of Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland (1985, on a stamp from Warhol’s ancestral homeland Slovakia), and his Banana screenprint for The Velvet Underground album cover (1967).
Born in 1673, Hungarian portrait painter Ádám Mányoki died on this date in 1757. A peripatetic artist, Mányoki was employed as court painter for no fewer than three kings and a prince. From 1703 to 1707 he was with the court of King Frederick William I of Prussia in Berlin; then he joined the court of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (two Mányoki portraits of him are seen on the stamps); next he spent six years with King Augustus II of Poland from 1717; and finally served that monarch’s successor Augustus III from 1736. In addition, Mányoki was active in Prague and Vienna, where he made portraits of the royal family, including Princess Maria Theresa, Dresden, and Leipzig. Despite all his success, he frittered away his wealth on alchemical experiments and died in poverty, aged 84.
Italian architect Nicola (or Niccolò) Salvi (6 August 1697 – 8 February 1751) is recalled on a stamp for his renowned Trevi fountain in Rome. He studied mathematics and philosophy before turning to architecture. In 1732, Pope Clement XII opened competitions for the fountain’s design, as well as for a new façade for the church of Saint John Lateran. Salvi submitted proposals for both, and though his design for the church was much admired, that project went to Alessandro Galilei. Salvi, obviously, got the fountain, though he did not live to see its completion. That was effected by his friend Pietro Bracci eleven years after Salvi’s death. Few other works by Salvi have survived, among them a chapel for a church in Lisbon (a collaboration with his friend Luigi Vanvitelli) and a tabernacle for the abbey of Monte Cassino.
Another architect of a later generation and a different land was the Frenchman Jacques Denis Antoine (6 August 1733 – 24 August 1801). The son of a Paris carpenter, Antoine worked as a mason with only informal instruction in architecture. Yet he was apparently so accomplished that by the age of twenty he was already receiving commissions. His masterwork, shown on the French stamp, is the Hôtel des Monnaies in Paris (1776). After this he was admitted to the Académie royale d’architecture. He also did for work for private castles, like the Château of Buisson de May in Normandy (1781-83).
Earlier this year we paid tribute to the Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov. Now we turn to his kid brother Apollinary Vasnetsov (6 August [O.S. July 25] 1856 – 23 January 1933). Like Jacques Denis Antoine, Apollinary had no formal training in his art, but had a more than adequate instructor in his brother. Apollinary painted landscapes and was creative in visualizing scenes from the past, as in his Novgorod Marketplace of 1909 and Winter Scene (aka The Vsekhvyatski Stone Bridge Moscow in the 1600s, c1901), this latter being reproduced on the Soviet stamp of 1956. Next to that are an 1897 portrait of the artist by his colleague Nikolai Kuznetsov and Vasnetsov’s Novodevichy Convent Towers (1926) on a a pair of Russian stamps from 2006. Incidentally, Vasnetsov also designed the set for a 1911 production of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Oprichnik.
French poet and playwright Paul Claudel (6 August 1868 – 23 February 1955) wrote dramas of inordinate length, sometimes many hours in duration, and developed his own form of free verse that came to be known as the verset claudelien. A fervent Catholic—following a period of agnosticism in his teens—Claudel thought about joining a Benedictine monastery, but went into the foreign service instead and was a member of the French diplomatic corps for more than forty years. (While in Brazil one of his secretaries was the composer Darius Milhaud, who would later provide incidental music for Claudel’s plays. We may as well add at this juncture that Claudel also wrote the text for Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher.) Famously, Claudel was also the elder brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel.
Choreographer and dancer Alexander Gorsky (1871 – 20 October 1924) was a contemporary of Marius Petipa, whose versions of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker Gorsky restaged. In 1996 Russia issued a block of four stamps in Gorsky’s honor. I show the portrait stamp, which has as its background a scene from the ballet La Fille de Gudule by Antoine Simon, whose birthday was yesterday! So a brief word about him is in order. Born in Paris in 1850, he spent his entire career in Russia, where he lived from the age of 21, working as ballet composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and, from 1897, inspector of imperial theaters. Simon prepared some of the orchestration for Minkus’s Don Quichotte. His original compositions include Les Étoiles (1898), Les Fleurs vivantes (1899), and the aforementioned La Fille de Gudule (1902), choreographed by Gorsky after Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. Simon died in Moscow on 19 January 1916.
Our next four artists all came from different Latin American countries, and their stamps form the top row of today’s third collage. Composer Sixto Maria Durán (1875 – January 13, 1947) of Ecuador was a prominent jurist, eventually being appointed president of the Ecuadorian Supreme Court in 1909. He was closely if sporadically associated with the National Conservatory of Music from 1900-1943. Among his other interests were shoemaking and carpentry, and in 1918 he lost the fingers of his left hand while using an electric saw at the school. He left a corpus of 150 works including an opera, Cumandá, and a zarzuela, Mariana. His “Patria” march and the “Leyenda incásica” are very well known to Ecuadorians. There’s an extensive article in Spanish about him online.
A more famous Latin American composer is the Cuban Ernesto Lecuona (August 6, 1895 – November 29, 1963), who studied under Joaquín Nin and wrote more than 600 pieces, many for stage and film. His song “Always in my heart” (“Siempre en mi Corazón“) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song in 1942, but lost to “White Christmas.” His cousin Margarita Lecuona, also a composer, wrote the song “Babalú”, often incorrectly attributed to Desi Arnaz, who introduced much of Ernesto Lecuona’s music to American audiences. Lecuona toured with his own dance band, Lecuona’s Cuban Boys, and lived for a while in New York. He also wrote some music in more formal dress: two operas, a number of zarzuelas, a Rapsodia negra for piano and orchestra, and a rather Stravinskian piano trio. After the revolution in 1960, he left Cuba for Tampa; he died of an asthma attack in the Canary Islands, where his father had been born.
Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco Meaño (6 August 1897 – 21 May 1955), a member of the Generación del 28, won a prize with his poem “Canto a la Espiga y al Arado” (which I think loosely translates to “Song of Ploughing of the Corn”) in 1918. Around the same time his first play was completed and he experienced his first imprisonment for protesting against the government. On winning the Juegos Florales (Floral Games) in 1923 he traveled to Spain to accept the award and lived there for a year. A few years after his return he was arrested again for his association with a dissident newspaper and this time was held for four years (1928-32). Later he would found Venezuela’s National Democratic Party and serve in the government himself until that government was overturned while he was at a UN meeting in Paris. Thereafter he lived in exile in Mexico, writing poetry. He was killed in a car accident at the age of 57.
Brazilian samba singer and songwriter Adoniran Barbosa was born João Rubinato to Italian immigrants not far from São Paulo on 6 August 1910. He went to the city in 1933 and won a songwriting contest there two years later. Already singing on stage, he started his thirty-year association with radio in 1941. Yet he didn’t release his own album until 1973. Barbosa also appeared in films and TV soap operas. He died on 23 November 1982.
Norwegian dancer and actress Lillebil Ibsen (née Sofie Parelius Monrad Krohn) was born in Kristiania (Oslo) on 6 August 1899. Her mother was an actress as well as a professional choreographer and ballet instructor. Lillelbil learned ballet from childhood, eventually studying with Mikhail Fokine. At just sixteen she was appearing on stage in pantomimes under Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Her first performance as an actress was in her home town in 1915, and three years later she appeared in her first film. The following year she married the director Tancred Ibsen, grandson of the great dramatist Henrik Ibsen and of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Lillebil Ibsen would continue acting until 1969. She died six days after her ninetieth birthday on 12 August 1989.
Two of the biggest American screen stars share this August 6 birthday. Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911 – April 26, 1989) appears on two U.S. stamps; one of them, which we saw here for Vivian Vance’s birthday within the last couple of weeks, was in fond remembrance of I Love Lucy. The other, earlier one had been issued in 2001 for Ms. Ball herself. Lucille Ball won four Primetime Emmys and was the first woman to be the head of a major television studio, Desilu Productions, from 1962.
The United States hasn’t given us a Robert Mitchum stamp yet; for that we must go abroad. Today is the actor’s centenary. Born in Connecticut, Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 1, 1997) was a feisty youngster who got thrown out of a couple of schools and rode the rails. He joined his sister in California and worked both on the stage and behind the scenes in theater until his first film roles in the 40s. Some of the great movies he starred in were the terrific noir Out of the Past (1947), Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955), and the classic Cape Fear (1962). Mitchum also wrote songs and made a calypso album in 1957! I can recall being in class at North Quincy High School one day in 1973 when a scene for The Friends of Eddie Coyle was being shot in a parking lot across the street. (I don’t remember whether Mitchum was in the scene—anyway, I didn’t see him, though I did briefly meet him not long afterward.)
While we’re on the subject of actors, let’s wish Michelle Yeoh a happy birthday. The Malaysian actress, born Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng to ethnic Chinese parents on 6 August 1962, is best known to Western audiences for her appearances in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and Memoirs of a Geisha. Like Lillebil Ibsen, she also studied ballet from a very early age. In London from the age of fifteen, she attended the Royal Academy of Dance but had to give up ballet following a back injury. The stamp comes from a Congolese sheet honoring “Bond girls”, the name on the stamp being that of her character Wai Lin.
Born on precisely the same day, 6 August 1962, was Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori. His best known work (so far) is the Kumu Art Museum, in Tallinn, Estonia, which features on a 2006 stamp from that nation.
The late Sir Howard Hodgkin just passed away on the 9th of March at age 84. Born 6 August 1932, he was a British abstract painter and printmaker. His first solo show was held in London in 1962. He won the Turner Prize in 1985, the second year of its existence, with A Small Thing But My Own. Hodgkin represented Britain at the 1985 Venice Biennale and was knighted in 1992. Though gay, he was married with two children. His work appears on—indeed, was specifically designed for—two British stamps: New Worlds (1999) for the Millenium series and Poppies (2015) for a set of stamps commemorating World War I.
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.