The Arts on the Stamps of the World — January 25

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


By Doug Briscoe

January 25th is the birthday of Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Witold Lutosławski, among others, and the Monte Carlo Opera House opened on this day in 1879.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) wrote some of our most familiar lyrics, and many of these were set by later composers (Burns did write music for some of his own songs as well). Even Beethoven made an arrangement for the tune “My Harry was a gallant gay” (WoO 157 #9, for those keeping score). Robert Schumann set no fewer than ten of Burns’s lyrics (in German translations) to music, including his 4 Duets, Op. 34, and several songs from the cycle “Myrthen”, Op. 25. “Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon” (again in translation) inspired new music by Maurice Ravel (!) in the fifth of his Chants populaires of 1910, “Chanson écossaise”. Britten’s song, “O that I had ne’er been married” and the Vaughan Williams partsong “Ca’ the yowes” both happen to date from 1922. And so on.

There isn’t a British stamp (yet) for Virginia Woolf (née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) (nor, by the way, is there one for W. Somerset Maugham, also born on this date [25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965]), but Romania (!) issued a Woolf stamp in 2007 for the 125th anniversary of her birth. Any number of films have been made from her profound novels, for example: a TV dramatization of To the Lighthouse was made in 1983 with Rosemary Harris and Kenneth Branagh; and a film of Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton, appeared in 1992. (Just last year a new opera on Orlando, by German composer Peter Aderhold, had its première in Braunschweig.) Mrs Dalloway was adapted for film in 1997 by Eileen Atkins—who had earlier starred in Patrick Garland’s 1989 play A Room of One’s Own—with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role; and the 2002 movie The Hours was based on Michael Cunningham’s Dalloway-related novel, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. As for other Woolf connections, Roger Fry painted her portrait in 1917, and years later she returned the favor by writing his biography (1940), and who can forget Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf??

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 – November 30, 1954) is regarded as one of the greatest conductors in history. This opinion is held not only by music lovers and critics, but also by some of the world’s greatest artists: Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Yehudi Menuhin, and Carlos Kleiber among them. His conducting style is seen as subjective (Neville Cardus wrote: “He did not regard the printed notes of the score as a final statement, but rather as so many symbols of an imaginative conception, ever changing…”), in opposition to the more objective style of, say, Toscanini, yet even the Italian maestro expressed the opinion that Furtwängler was the world’s greatest conductor (after himself). Furtwängler was one of the many anti-fascists—and the most distinguished conductor—to remain in Germany during the Third Reich, and for this reason is sometimes held to account, but the evidence in his defense strikes me as perfectly overwhelming. To cite just a few examples, in 1932 he said of Hitler, “This hissing street pedlar will never get anywhere in Germany,” and in 1934 spoke of him publicly as an “enemy of the human race.” He famously conducted Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony in direct opposition to a Nazi Party ban. He refused to give the Nazi salute, would not conduct the Party’s Horst Wessel Song, and never signed his letters “Heil Hitler,” including letters he sent to Hitler himself! Himmler wanted to send Furtwängler to a concentration camp, but the conductor’s worldwide renown saved him from such measures. And yet, despite all this, and his clearing at the postwar denazification hearings, his appointment as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony in 1949 was blocked by protests from (I think) misguided figures such as Toscanini, George Szell, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, and Isaac Stern. Yehudi Menuhin, conversely, strongly disagreed with this boycott. Furtwängler’s favored repertoire was Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner, but he also championed new music (for example, he conducted the première of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto with the composer at the piano in 1932). As a composer, his most important work is the sprawling Symphony No. 2 he completed in Switzerland in 1945.

Witold Lutosławski (1913 – 7 February 1994) is widely acknowledged as one of the great composers of the mid-late 20th century. His parents were of the Polish nobility. His father and uncle, democratic activists, were executed by the Soviets in 1918. Lutosławski’s musical studies began with piano lessons in Warsaw at the age of six. When World War II broke out, he went into military service as a radio operator and was captured by the invading Germans, but escaped and walked 250 miles back to Warsaw. His brother, meanwhile, was captured by Russian soldiers and died in a Siberian labor camp. The young musician formed a piano duo with his friend the composer Andrzej Panufnik, and they played in Warsaw cafés, sometimes violating the Nazi ban on Polish music. They even composed Resistance songs. Lutosławski and his mother left the city just a few days before the Warsaw Uprising, and much of his music was lost in the subsequent razing of the city. He returned in 1945 and was elected to the Union of Polish Composers as secretary and treasurer, but as a firm opponent of Socialist realism he resigned in 1948. Despite this, he did receive numerous awards and other recognition for his work, beginning with his Concerto for Orchestra of 1954. He went on to write pieces for Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello Concerto), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Les espaces du sommeil), Anne-Sophie Mutter (Chain 2), and Krystian Zimerman (Piano Concerto). As a gesture of support for the Solidarity movement, he refused all professional engagements in Poland throughout the 80s. As early as 1983, he was awarded the Solidarity prize. He was said to be more proud of this than any other of his honors. After the fall of communism, Lutosławski became president of the Polish Cultural Council. He died of cancer at the age of eighty-one.

The early Austrian composer Paul Hofhaimer (1459 – 1537) was held to be the finest organist of his day, a highly gifted improviser. Only he and Heinrich Isaac, whom he knew, had reputations that extended outside German-speaking lands. From 1489 Hofhaimer served King (later Emperor) Maximilian I, who gave him a knighthood. Few of his works survive.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt, or Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824 – 29 June 1873) was a pioneer of Bengali drama and an important poet. Greatly influenced by English and European literature, he began writing poems in English at 17 and even converted to Christianity at 19. This meant he could no longer study at the Hindu College, and, disinherited by his father, he went to Madras (today Chennai) in 1847, where he took on work as a teacher and magazine editor, publishing some of his own poems, using the pen name Timothy Penpoem, in those periodicals. He adopted the name Michael in 1848, although, at around this time, he began writing in his native Bengali. Dutt refused a traditional arranged marriage and, according to Wikipedia, was “the first Indian to marry a European or Anglo-Indian woman.” Later, however, he abandoned her and their four children. A brilliant polymath, Dutt also read law at Gray’s Inn in London and studied six languages: Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. His most celebrated work (one of his five plays) is the tragedy Meghnad Bodh Kavya (The Slaying of Meghnad). He left The Slaying of Hector, a prose version of the Iliad, unfinished at his death.

The Russian landscape painter Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832 – 20 March 1898) studied in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and was graduated with highest honors and an imperial scholarship to study in Switzerland and Germany. Shishkin joined the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg as professor of painting from 1873 to the year of his death. The 1971 postage stamp gives us a reproduction of one of his many lovely forest scenes, this one from 1872 called Pine Forest in Vyatka Province. Here is a better view of the painting.

We also celebrate the birthday of Juventino Rosas (José Juventino Policarpo Rosas Cadenas; 1868 – 9 July 1894), a Mexican violinist and composer of dance music. Having played as a street musician in Mexico City, he twice attended the conservatory but never completed his degree. In 1893 he accompanied an orchestra to the Chicago World’s Fair, travelling to Cuba the following year. His promising career was cut short by spinal myelitis; he died while on tour in Surgidero de Batabanó at the age of 26. All the same, Rosas was renowned as a composer of salon music, with more foreign editions of his work than any other. He even made a few recordings, though the first of these was not released until after his death. His waltz “Sobre las Olas” or “Over the Waves” is instantly recognizable and in the United States is associated with circuses and fairs as a Wurlitzer organ favorite. A Mexican biopic, named for Over the Waves, came out in 1950, and the following year the tune was adapted (as “The Loveliest Night of the Year”, sung by Ann Blyth) for use in the American movie The Great Caruso. The Mexican stamp of 1972 shows the 1888 title page of this most famous melody.


Hungarian author István Fekete (EESHT-vahn FEH-keh-teh; 1900 – June 23, 1970) wrote novels for youth—the best known is probably Tüskevár (Thorn Castle, 1957), which was made into a movie in 1967—and stories about animals. Written in the same year as Thorn Castle, his novel Bogáncs was published in English as Thistle. Some of his other titles are Lutra, the Otter; Vuk, the Little Fox; Kele, the Stork; and Hu, the Owl. Some of these have also been made into films. Fekete’s books have been translated into ten languages.

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (1938 – 25 July 1980) is a beloved figure in Russian popular culture as a singer, songwriter, poet, and actor. From his earliest years (as reflected in his autobiographical song “Ballad of Childhood” of 1975), Vysotsky showed theatrical gifts, and it was as an actor that his career began. After attending the Moscow Art Theatre Studio-Institute he appeared in a 1958 stage production of Crime and Punishment and made his cinema debut in Ordynsky’s The Yearlings the following year. He started writing songs professionally in 1961. Private recordings Vysotsky made in 1963 circulated widely and increased his popularity, which was cemented after his appearance in the 1967 film The Vertical, for which Vysotsky wrote several of the songs. His double-edged success brought both world travel (Brezhnev loved his work) and alcoholism and drug abuse, and his health, further compromised by excessive smoking, a hectic schedule and—despite Brezhnev—government harassment, had quite broken down by the late 1970s. His first poetry collection, The Nerve, was published posthumously. It is said that Vladimir Vysotsky’s reputation in Russia is comparable to that of Bob Dylan in the USA.

The Monte Carlo Opera House opened on this date in 1879 with a play starring Sarah Bernhardt. The first opera to be performed there, Planquette’s Le Chevalier Gaston, was given on the 8th of February in that year.

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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