The Arts on the Stamps of the World — January 24

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


By Doug Briscoe

Two musical monarchs grace our page today, along with writers Edith Wharton, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Pierre Beaumarchais, painters Robert Motherwell and Vasily Surikov, and composers Stanyslav Lyudkevych and Vítězslava Kaprálová.

Frederick II of Prussia (24 January 1712 – 17 August 1786) played the flute and composed 100 sonatas for the instrument. He was the patron of C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz (whose birthday stamp can be seen here six days from now), Carl Heinrich Graun, and Franz Benda, who collectively wrote hundreds more for the king to play. We also owe to Frederick the existence of Johann Sebastian Bach’s magnificent Musical Offering of 1747, as Frederick provided the “Royal Theme” that is the basis for that expansive contrapuntal masterpiece. There are a number of stamps honoring Frederick the Great; I selected one with a detail from the famous painting of him playing the flute. (This work, The Flute Concert of Sanssouci, is not contemporary with Frederick, but was painted by Adolph von Menzel in 1852.) I cannot move on from royalty without mentioning that today is also the birthday of Swedish king Gustav III (24 January [O.S. 13 January] 1746 – 29 March 1792), whose assassination at a masked ball was the model for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

The great Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones; 1862 – August 11, 1937) is probably, after Frederick the Great, the best known figure of all our birthday children today. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence, which was made into a silent film just three years later and remade, with Irene Dunne, ten years after that. In 1993 it was made into a splendid, if uncharacteristic, film by Martin Scorsese. There are 21 other novels and novellas (The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome among them), along with 85 short stories, three volumes of poetry, books on design and travel, etc. The stamp was issued in 1980.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776 – 25 June 1822) was a multitalented individual best known as an author of fantasy stories, but he was also a draftsman and caricaturist, a jurist, and a composer and music critic. (He was actually born E. T. W. Hoffmann, “W” for Wilhelm.) Not only was he a hands-on musician himself, but his stories and characters served as the inspiration for famous music by other composers. In ballet, his novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was famously used by Tchaikovsky, and two other stories are the source for Delibes’s Coppélia. Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana is based on a Hoffmann character, and Hoffmann himself is the title character in Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The CPO label has issued several albums of Hoffmann’s music in various genres.

Like Hoffmann, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732 – 18 May 1799) was a polymath who not only wrote plays like The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, but was also an inventor, watchmaker, horticulturist, publisher, diplomat, and spy who supported the American and French Revolutions. He was himself a musician, playing several instruments and being appointed to teach the harp to the daughters of Louis XV! It appears that the first opera based on Beaumarchais’s work was Paisiello’s Barber of Seville of 1782 (Rossini’s version came later, in 1816). Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro followed in 1786. (There is a third Figaro play by Beaumarchais, La Mère coupable ou L’Autre Tartuffe—The Guilty Mother, or The Other Tartuffe—which was made into an opera by Milhaud in 1966.) Among the other operas, most of them based on the Figaro stories, are works by Jules Massenet (Chérubin, 1905), and John Corigliano (The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991). I learned that Beaumarchais’ life was the source of inspiration for a play by Goethe (Clavigo, 1774), a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, and a comedy by Sacha Guitry.

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848 –19 March 1916) studied in St. Petersburg and won several medals of distinction. He moved to Moscow so as to fulfill a commission for murals at the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior, thereafter beginning the series of historical paintings that made his name. Surikov himself or examples of his work have appeared on a dozen Russian stamps going back to 1941. One of those early stamps, seen second row right, reproduces Suvorov Crossing the Alps (1897), which Surikov painted in Switzerland. Next to that is the playful Capture of Snow Town (1891). We see here also two stamps depicting Boyarina Morozova (1886), one issued by the Soviet Union in 1967, the other by Russia in 1998. The last picture, third row left, is a detail of Menshikov in Berezov of 1883.

Robert Motherwell (1915 – July 16, 1991), born in Washington state, grew up in California. He attended Harvard and Columbia. It was in the early 1940s that he and his slightly older colleagues, including de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, began to formulate the basis of abstract expressionism, or what Motherwell himself called the New York School. In the Cross-Pollination Dept., in 1965 he produced a series of hundreds of ink drawings he called “Lyric Suite” after Alban Berg’s musical composition of that name, though the direct inspiration for the series was Japanese calligraphy. Married four times, Motherwell died in Provincetown, where he had been spending his summers since the early 60s. In 2010 the US issued a sheet of stamps of ten works of the school, and one of Motherwell’s extensive Elegy to the Spanish Republic series was selected for inclusion (along with pieces by the above-named three artists).


Ukrainian composer Stanyslav Pylypovych Lyudkevych was born on 24 January (O. S. 12 January) 1879 and died a hundred years later on 10 September 1979. He studied at the conservatory in Lviv, which was then situated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; when he died, it was in the Soviet Union; today it’s in Ukraine. He also studied in Vienna under Alexander von Zemlinsky. Lyudkevych edited the Artistic Bulletin, the first magazine devoted to music and painting to be published in Western Ukraine. He was a prisoner of war for almost the entirety of World War I. Lyudkevych was a theorist, writer of didactic texts, and teacher and was named People’s Artist of the USSR in 1969 at the age of 90. His works include two operas, three piano concertos and one for violin, seven tone poems, piano pieces, choral works, and songs, and he oversaw the publication of some fifteen hundred Ukrainian folk songs.

While Lyudkevych lived to be a centenarian, Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová (VEET-yeh-slah-va KAH-pra-lo-va) died at the age of 25, probably from miliary tuberculosis. She was also born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Brno (now in the Czech Republic), exactly 102 years ago today (January 24, 1915). Her teachers included the conductors Zdeněk Chalabala, Václav Talich, and Charles Munch, composers Vítězslav Novák and Bohuslav Martinů, and the ubiquitous Nadia Boulanger. She conducted her own Military Sinfonietta with the Czech Philharmonic in 1937 and the BBC Symphony in 1938. Her music was championed by her countrymen Rafael Kubelík and Rudolf Firkušný. Kaprálová was married to the Czech writer Jiří Mucha just two months before her death on June 16, 1940. A new biography, the only one in English, appeared in 2011. A good deal of Kaprálová’s music was published during her short lifetime, and a fair amount of her substantial output has been recorded on such labels as Koch and Supraphon. A performing group named for her, the Kaprálová String Quartet, has been in existence since 1995.

Mithat Fenmen (1916 – October 19, 1982) was an important figure in the musical life of Turkey: composer, pianist, teacher, writer, and publisher. After study in Istanbul he went to Paris, where he was admired by Cortot and taught by (guess who?) Nadia Boulanger. He studied further at the Munich Conservatory until the outbreak of World War II, at which point he returned to Turkey and became a piano teacher at the Ankara State Conservatory, which he later directed; he taught for 43 years and can claim Idil Biret, the Pekinel sisters, and Fazil Say among his students. He was married to the British ballet dancer Beatrice Appleyard.

When somebody issues a stamp in honor of Restoration playwright William Congreve (24 January 1670 – 19 January 1729), I’ll display it.

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.

Posted in ,

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts