An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
It’s Chopin’s birthday, and I have (gulp!) seventeen other anniversaries to note today, Ralph Ellison, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Oskar Kokoschka, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Glenn Miller, and David Niven among them. March 1 is also the day on which Girolamo Frescobaldi died.
Since today’s entry is already going to be long enough to take up an entire bookshelf, I’ll skip the bio for Chopin (1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849) and just say that I believe him to be one of the very greatest composers despite his almost exclusive focus on the piano; no symphonies, no string quartets, no operas (though he loved opera), but keyboard works of such stunning originality, power and poetry, such lovely melodies and extraordinary rich harmonies, as to give him a seat beside Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert in the Olympian pantheon despite his “restricted” compositional palate. These are most of the three dozen Chopin stamps I have in my collection, predominantly, as you might expect, Polish issues.
Born 103 years to the day after Chopin, Ralph Ellison (1913 – April 16, 1994), author of the landmark novel Invisible Man (1952, which I shame to say I still have not read), was born in Oklahoma City. He lost his father, a man who loved literature, to complications following an accident when Ralph was only three. The surviving family members (Ellison had an elder brother who died in infancy) relocated to Gary, Indiana, where they hoped to find less discrimination. Musically inclined, Ralph learned trumpet and sax and became his school’s bandmaster. Apparently he got into Tuskegee only because their orchestra lacked a trumpet player. (He was also a keen audiophile.) Ellison’s own love of books seems to have blossomed when he began work as desk clerk at the university library, devouring Joyce, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Hardy. He went to New York to study sculpture and photography and met such figures as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He was intrigued by Communism but, feeling betrayed, renounced it during the Second World War. Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award, and his career as a writer was well launched. Ellison lived for a couple of years in Rome, where he became close friends with Robert Penn Warren, before returning to the US. His published output during his lfietime was comparatively small, but posthumously another novel, Juneteenth, saw publication in 1995, and a condensation of thousands of manuscript pages was issued as Three Days Before the Shooting… in 2010. The stamp honoring him came out four years later.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 – August 3, 1907) is well known to Bostonians. We can boast such works of his as the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, the statue of Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church (1907-10, completed by others), and the plaque of Robert Charles Billings at the BPL (1899). Born in Dublin, Saint-Gaudens was brought as an infant by his French father and Irish mother to New York, where he grew up. His brother Louis was also a sculptor. He was a member of the artists’ group the Tilers, and his wife was distantly related to fellow member Winslow Homer. Saint-Gaudens created many Civil War memorials (besides the one for Robert Gould Shaw), designed the $20 “double eagle” gold piece (1905–07), and founded the “Cornish Colony” for artists of all disciplines.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886 – 22 February 1980) was a fascinating character. An artist without formal training, a believer in omens, a lover of Alma Mahler (see Tom Lehrer for the full list), and a man whose erratic behavior, after he was severely wounded in World War I, led army doctors to believe that he was unstable. He was born in the lovely countryside of Lower Austria but to a rather irresponsible father who left his family struggling. In school he would read classic literature during science classes and was advised to follow the arts. Kokoschka applied to the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, a less traditional school than the Academy of Fine Art, with 153 other applicants and was one of three accepted. It was in 1912 that Kokoschka began his stormy relationship with Alma Mahler, the passion of which alarmed Alma to the point that she broke it off, though Kokoschka never lost his deep feeling for her. He paid tribute to her with his Bride of the Wind (aka The Tempest), considered one of his masterpieces. With the rise of Nazism, he fled to Prague, then Britain, adopting citizenship in 1946, but he lived most of the rest of his life in Switzerland and resumed Austrian citizenship two years before his death. Like Max Beckmann, Kokoschka was an expressionist who was not strictly bound by the tenets of the movement, and thus manifested a highly individual modernism. In addition to the stamp honoring Kokoschka himself, there is one from Djibouti that reproduces his portrait of Konrad Adenauer from 1966, executed when Kokoschka was eighty.
The great Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1 March [O.S. 18 February] 1896 – 2 November 1960) was also a pianist and, in his younger days, a composer. He gave up composing around 1930 to concentrate on conducting. Born in Athens, he was musically precocious and used to supervise musical gatherings at his home when he was aged 11 to 14. His first appearance in the US was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936, and the following year he began a twelve-year association with the Minneapolis Symphony (as it was then called). During that time he took American citizenship (1946). In 1949 he became co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski of the New York Philharmonic Symphony (as it was then called) and was named sole music director in 1951, a position he held until succeeded by his protégé (and possible lover) Leonard Bernstein. Mitropoulos was also very active in opera, serving as the primary conductor with the Met from 1954 until his death in 1960. He led the premières of many scores, including Barber’s Vanessa (1958) and the first American performances of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony (1954) and First Violin Concerto (1956); and he left a substantial body of superb recordings (but with variable sound quality). As a pianist, he made records of the Prokofiev Third Concerto, himself conducting—he was one of the first since Mozart’s day to achieve that dual role—and Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, among others. As a composer, he wrote an opera, Sœur Bérénice, given at Athens in 1919, a Concerto Grosso (1928), a number of solo piano pieces, and various orchestral arrangements of Bach and others. He died in Milan while rehearsing the Mahler Third. The Greek stamp of 1985 pairs Mitropoulos (at right) with his countryman the composer Nikos Skalkottas.
We’ll take the rest of today’s many subjects chronologically.
The English architect Augustus Pugin (1812 – 14 September 1852) created many churches and other buildings in England, Ireland, and elsewhere, but is most remembered for the interior of the Palace of Westminster and for “Big Ben”. Like Saint-Gaudens, he was the son of a Frenchman, who, in this case, had come to England to escape the French Revolution. Pugin was a proponent of the Gothic Revival, for which he argued in his 1836 polemic Contrasts. He worked on interior designs for Charles Barry’s reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster after it was destroyed by fire in 1834. In the final year of his life, Pugin provided Barry with the design for the clock tower, officially called the Elizabeth Tower, but familiarly known to all as Big Ben. At this time, Pugin was dying of what his biographer Rosemary Hill believes was hyperthyroidism brought on by syphilis contracted in his youth. His mental breakdown in the February of that year had temporarily left him unable to recognise people or speak clearly. Despite a partial recovery, Pugin died seven months later. Big Ben was his last design.
Greek painter Nikolaos Gyzis (1842 – 4 January 1901) was born on the island of Tinos, but the family moved to Athens when he was eight. After study at the Athens School of Fine Arts he won a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, in which city he made his home. As such he was the central figure in the 19th-century Greek art movement known as the “Munich School”. (He did return to Greece for a few years in the 1870s.) Gyzis was most famous for his work Eros and the Painter. Apart from his 1966 portrait stamp, we can see his work on a much earlier issue that uses his allegorical Glory of Psara (c1898). This same design was used in a number of stamps in different colors and denominations from 1937 to 1945.
Belgian composer Willem De Mol (1846 – 7 September 1874), born at Brussels to a musical family, had a beautiful alto voice as a boy and won a string of prizes at the Brussels Conservatory beginning when he was as young as 12. He served as organist at a number of churches while still in his mid-teens. In 1869, De Mol assisted a friend by supplying musicians to perform the friend’s cantata, which went on to win the Belgian Prix de Rome over De Mol’s entry; but De Mol himself won the Prix two years later. With the prize money he traveled extensively, meeting Liszt, Raff, Joachim, and von Bülow. While in Marseille, however, where his brother was a conductor and organist, De Mol fell ill with rheumatoid arthritis and died at the age of 28. His music includes a stage work, The Exiles, oratorios and other sacred works, and a symphony. We just saw this 1961 Belgian stamp on February 17th, the birthday of the other composer represented here, Henri Vieuxtemps (De Mol is on the right).
The family of Ecuadorean composer Salvador Bustamante Celi (1876–1935) was also musical: his father a composer and organist at Loja Cathedral and his mother a singer. He earned a scholarship to a school in Quito, but his father died when Bustamente was 13, and he was apprenticed to a saddler. It was as a grown man of 30 that he furthered his musical education in Lima, Peru. He returned to Ecuador just as a border war between the two countries erupted, and Bustamente composed a patriotic hymn, “Guerrero Ecuador”, on the occasion, thereafter concentrating on sacred music: a Requiem, a Coronation Mass, litanies, etc., while working as organist at the church of San Francisco de Guayaquil. He went back to his native Loja in 1913 and founded the Lojano Septet and two brass bands. His other compositions include hymns, carols, and patriotic marches and martial airs.
Jan Duiker (1890 – 23 February 1935) was a Dutch architect who partnered with Bernard Bijvoet from 1919 until 1925. It was Hendrik Berlage who recommended them for the Zonnestraal project (which lay abandoned in the 1980s but was renovated and is being considered for acceptance as a World Heritage Site). An exponent of the Constructivist style, Duiker is represented on a stamp by his open air school (Openluchtschool) in Amsterdam (1929-30).
Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 24 July 1927) gave us the story “Rashomon”, which was to be made into one of Akira Kurosawa’s most memorable films decades after Akutagawa’s death by suicide at the age of 35. Many readers hold Akutagawa to be the “Father of the Japanese short story”. The Akutagawa Prize for literary merit was established in his memory in 1935. Akutagawa was born under the name Niihara in Tokyo and took the name Akutagawa from the uncle who raised him after his mother’s mental collapse. He took an early interest in classical Chinese literature and the works of Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki, both of whom we have seen on stamps this month. He taught English for a time before turning to writing, publishing his own works and those of his friends in the journal Shinshicho (New Currents of Thought), along with translations of Western writers and poets such as Yeats and Anatole France. “Rashomon” was Akutagawa’s very first published story. He visited one of Sōseki’s literary gatherings in December 1915 and was praised by the older man for a piece he wrote the following year. He began writing haiku and worked as a journalist in China, an assignment that took its toll on his health. Akutagawa began to suffer under the apprehension that he might have inherited his mother’s mental illness and made an attempt on his life. The first failed, but the second, alas, an overdose of Veronal, was all too successful. It may be of interest to note that a ballet and an opera have been based on Akutagawa’s work: Gagaku, a 1994 ballet by Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva, and Rashomon, a 1996 opera by Mayako Kubo.
Today’s post is so outrageously lengthy that I’m going to pay short shrift to two very famous and beloved performers: Glenn Miller and David Niven. Bandleader Miller was born in Iowa in 1904 and sold more records from 1939 to 1943— “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, “PEnnsylvania 6-5000”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and more—than any other artist. While entertaining the troops during World War II, Miller’s plane went missing over the English channel on December 15, 1944.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that the more recent of two British stamps for David Niven (1910 – 29 July 1983) shows him with Kim Hunter in a still from the movie A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which is about a WWII RAF pilot who is given a second chance. Niven did serve as a lieutenant in the war, the only British actor to leave his privileged Hollywood position to do so. Besides his many unforgettable performances in film, Niven also wrote four books, two novels and two memoirs, the first of which, The Moon’s a Balloon (1971), was a great success. The earlier stamp comes from 1985.
Elena Cernei (1924 – 27 November 2000) was a Romanian operatic mezzo-soprano with the Romanian National Opera from 1952 to 1977. Beginning in the mid-1960s she toured Europe and North America, singing at La Scala, the Met (her debut there was as Dalila in 1965, and she remained with the company until 1968), the Paris National Opera, and the Bolshoi Theater. Cernei was also a distinguished musicologist, author of L’enigma della voce umana (1987) and Et fiat lux (1999).
The Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon (1934 – October 20, 2005) created paintings, book illustrations, posters, and sculpture. His first exhibition (watercolors) was in New York’s Lefebre Gallery in 1969. Besides his posters for theater, opera, and film (e.g. for Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo), he made many for humanitarian causes. Among the authors whose books he illustrated were Apollinaire, Borges, Ray Bradbury, Camus, Kafka, Maupassant, and H.G. Wells. A set of Belgian stamps from 2010, of which we show several, gives us samples of Folon’s work in various media.
Though the name Eugen Doga (born March 1, 1937) is perhaps not so well known in the US, the Romanian-Moldovan composer has achieved great popularity in Eastern Europe, having written music in many different genres, including popular songs, of which he has composed nearly 300, and film scores numbering about 200! But he has also produced much music in the “classical” vein: three ballets, an opera called Dialogues of Love, a Requiem, a symphony (1969), six string quartets, and a hundred other instrumental and choral works. Doga grew up in great privation, but was admitted to the Music School in Chişinău after hearing about it on a homemade radio. He took up the cello and went on to play with the Moldavian SSR Orchestra, to teach at a music college, and to work at the Board of the Moldavian Ministry of Culture. From the early 70s he met with great success giving concerts all over the USSR and beyond. Now he divides his time between Chişinău and Moscow and has a minor planet (#10504) named for him.
Another living composer acknowledged on stamps is Leo Brouwer, born Juan Leovigildo Brouwer Mezquida on March 1, 1939 in Havana. His great-uncle was the composer Ernesto Lecuona. His first musical studies were on the guitar with his father, who taught him to play mainly by ear. His later studies were at Hartt College and Juilliard, where his teachers included Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. Brouwer stopped playing guitar on suffering a finger injury in the early 1980s, but he has written a great number of works for that instrument as well as other works, notably some forty film scores. In addition to the 2014 stamp in his honor, there is another that shows a scene from his ballet Edipo Rey (Oedipus Rex, 1972). That one was issued for the 1976 International Ballet Festival of Havana.
We don’t know the exact birthday of the great Renaissance master Girolamo Frescobaldi, born in Ferrara some time in September of 1583, but he died on 1 March 1643 and so joins our group today. He was a child prodigy and studied under Luzzasco Luzzaschi. As a young man he went to Rome and accompanied his employer the Archbishop of Rhodes on a journey to Flanders, Frescobaldi’s only time outside Italy. While he was away, he was named organist of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a position he held from 1608 to 1628 and again from 1634 to his death. In the interval he was in Florence in the service of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Frescobaldi is regarded as one of the most important composers of keyboard music of his day, having produced eight books of pieces that were studied by and influenced Bach, Pachelbel, Purcell, and others. Among his students was another very significant keyboard composer, Johann Jakob Froberger. While employed by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Frescobaldi also became acquainted with the lutenist Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger. His only sacred collection, the Fiori musicali, appeared in 1635.
Haven’t had enough for one day? On March 1, 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park is as the world’s first national park. The oldest stamp is from 1934, the newest from just last year. (The middle one is from 1972.)
Still not on stamps are William Dean Howells (March 1, 1837 – May 11, 1920), Lytton Strachey (1880 – 21 January 1932), and Robert Lowell (1917 – September 12, 1977).
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.