An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Two of the greatest composer-pianists in history and one of the greatest pianists, who also composed a little, share this birthday: Rachmaninov, Busoni, and Dinu Lipatti. It’s also the birthday of Edmond Rostand, the wonderful actors Lon Chaney (Sr.) and Toshiro Mifune, and Milan Kundera, along with Chilean tenor Renato Zanelli, Bulgarian composer Hristo Manolov, Mozart’s brother-in-law Joseph Lange, Soviet film and theater director Ruben Simonov, and American painter Edwin Austin Abbey.
To the best of my knowledge, Sergei Rachmaninov (1 April [O.S. 20 March] 1873 – 28 March 1943) has never been honored in his native Russia with a postage stamp. He was an outspoken anti-Communist and left Russia in 1917 without ever going back, so it’s no surprise the Supreme Soviet wouldn’t honor him, but there’s been nothing since 1989 either. (Gotta be that stinker Putin: murder your critics, invade Ukraine, erase Rachmaninov from the history books…grrr…) Other than a composer sheet from Gambia, there is, astonishingly, only one Rachmaninov postage stamp in existence (other than maybe some goofy ones from Backwoodsia)! It was issued by Moldova in 1997.
This deplorable philatelic uniqueness is true also of Ferruccio Busoni (1 April 1866 – 27 July 1924): his only stamp comes from an Italian composer set of 1975. Today is the 151st anniversary of Busoni’s birth. A child prodigy, Busoni was hailed by both Hanslick and Liszt, the musical antipodes of the day. He went to Finland in 1888 and became friendly with Sibelius. He went on to teach at the Moscow Conservatory and the New England Conservatory (Busoni’s first son was born in Boston). Though he continued to travel and concertize widely, Busoni settled in Berlin from 1894. He reluctantly made a small number of recordings and a larger canon of piano rolls of dubious quality.
To our loss, the great Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti (1 April [O.S. 19 March] 1917 – 2 December 1950) left behind only a rather small body of superlative recordings as well as several compositions. The stamp on the left was issued in 1967, in which year he would have celebrated his 50th birthday if he hadn’t died of Hodgkin’s disease at age 33. The stamp on the right I would caustically describe as “a poor likeness.”
I’m surprised that France has never issued a stamp for Edmond Rostand (1 April 1868 – 2 December 1918), and so we must make do with a couple of loosely connected issues, both of which we’ve already seen in this series: the first to celebrate the birthday of Cyrano de Bergerac; the other to mark the anniversary of the first performance of the opera L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), cowritten by composers Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert. Rostand, of course, wrote the original play on which the opera was based; Sarah Bernhardt played the title role in the premiere in 1900. A third play, a burlesque called Les Romanesques (1894), also saw new life as the musical The Fantasticks (1960), adapted by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.
Two legendary actors share this April 1st birthday. The elder of them was the phenomenal Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney (1883 – August 26, 1930), “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. Much of Chaney’s expressivity has been attributed to the fact that he was born to deaf parents and developed refined pantomime skills as a result. He started on the stage 1902 and married a 16-year-old singer three years later. The birth of their son Creighton Tull Chaney (later to adopt the name Lon Chaney, Jr) was born a year after that. Lon Chaney Sr. worked in film for some years before achieving fame, abetted by his advanced abilities with makeup. This talent would come to the fore in such later roles as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Eric in The Phantom of the Opera. If you haven’t seen it, do seek out the bizarre and hair-raising Tod Browning film The Unknown (1927, with Joan Crawford!)—in this one, Chaney plays a carnival knife-thrower called Alonzo the Armless and gives not only his usual great acting job but also an amazing physical performance. He made only one “talkie”, The Unholy Three (1930), and that was a remake of a silent he had starred in just five years earlier, but Chaney did more of his share of talking in that one, providing the voices for no fewer than five characters, one of them a parrot. It was his last film. A documentary of his remarkable life, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, was made in 2000 with narration by Kenneth Branagh. As with the stamp for Chaney’s son, which we saw in February, the one for Chaney Sr. shows him heavily made up, in this case as the Phantom for the 1925 film.
A very different kind of actor was the unforgettable Toshiro Mifune (April 1, 1920 – December 24, 1997). He was born in China to Japanese Methodist missionaries and was himself a Christian. He grew up there and in Manchuria. Mifune learned photography in the shop of his father and when drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II worked for an aerial photography unit. He took to acting after the war and met Akira Kurosawa during a talent search. They made sixteen films together, just about all of them great, but had a falling out in 1965 and a tearful reconciliation only three decades later. Mifune appeared in more than 100 other films including a few American productions like Hell in the Pacific (1968) Midway (1976), in which he played Admiral Yamamoto with his voice dubbed in, and the TV miniseries Shogun, in which he played the Lord Toranaga. According to Mifune’s daughter, he was asked by George Lucas to play either Darth Vader or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
Milan Kundera was born on April 1st 1929 in Brno. His father was a musicologist and head of the city’s Janáček Music Academy, and Kundera is well versed in the subject, though he later studied film and in the end, of course, turned to writing. He has had an up-and-down relationship with Communism, a fervent admirer in his youth, a member from 1948, twice expelled from the Party, finally turning away from polemicism, at least in his novels from the mid-1980s on, the turning point being his most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Kundera has lived in France since 1975 and became a citizen in 1981. Since 1993, after translating all his earlier work, he has written in French. Now I draw your attention to the stamp, from the Republic of Guinea. Its purpose is to honor winners of the Pulitzer Prize, with Philip Roth, who has won it once and been nominated a further three times, being given pride of place. The weird thing is that Kundera has never won the Pulitzer and, as a Czech with French citizenship, couldn’t even be nominated for it. So, April Fool, after all. But it’s a real stamp, and it’s nice he has one.
American artist Edwin Austin Abbey (April 1, 1852 – August 1, 1911) was born in Philadelphia, a city to which he returned much later in life to work on murals for the new State Capitol building. He had gone to New York at 19 and earned a living with his illustrations for books (an 1875 edition of Dickens’s Christmas Stories, for one) and for magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s. From New York he moved to England in 1878, making that country his home from 1883. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1898 and was commissioned to paint Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. Abbey died before completing his work on the Pennsylvania State Capitol, which was finished by Violet Oakley, with some contributions from John Singer Sargent. An earlier set of murals for our very own Boston Public Library, The Quest of the Holy Grail, was executed in the 1890s, and one of those was chosen for Edwin Austin Abbey’s stamp.
Renato Zanelli Morales (April 1, 1892 – March 25, 1935) was born in Valparaiso to Italian parents. He started out as a baritone, making his debut as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust in Santiago in 1916. In 1919 he sang Amonasro at the Met, where he remained until 1923. He then went to Italy for further vocal studies and changed over to the tenor range with his first tenor rôle being Raoul in Les Huguenots, given in Naples in 1924. He was particularly noted for his Otello, which he first sang in Turin in 1926. Zanelli died of cancer in Santiago just a week prior to his 43rd birthday.
Russian theater director Ruben Simonov (April 1 [OS March 20], 1899 – December 5, 1968), after studies in Moscow, began his career an an actor in Armenia. He greatest distinction was as the director of the Vakhtangov Theater from 1939. In addition, he was in charge of the Armenian and Uzbek theatres of Moscow and directed a few films, among them Admiral Nakhimov (1947) and The Fall of Berlin (1950, with music by Shostakovich), in both of which he took prominent acting roles.
Hristo Manolov (1 April 1900 – 8 November 1953) was the son and father of composers. His father Emanuil Manolov (1860 – 1902) was one of the first professional Bulgarian composers; his son was Zdravko Manolov (1925 – 1983). Hristo was a military bandmaster like his father. He studied in Dresden, worked as a choral and orchestral conductor throughout Bulgaria, and founded the Gusla Choir of Sofia in 1929. Besides his many choral songs, he wrote four operas, two operettas, six masses, and two ballets, along with symphonic, band, and chamber music. The stamp, according to Jiumn-wen Lin, who presides over an exhaustive and admirable Website of classical music philately, shows a scene from The Dragon and Yana (1937), regarded as the first Bulgarian ballet. It comes from a set issued to celebrate the International Youth Festival held in Vienna in 1959.
Mozart’s brother-in-law Joseph Lange (1 April 1751 – 1831) was an amateur painter who left us a famous (albeit unfinished) portrait of Mozart that is reproduced on a 1991 stamp from—wait for it—India! Lange married Mozart’s unrequited love Aloysia Weber, and Mozart found solace in the arms of Aloysia’s younger sister Constanze.
From time to time I indulge myself here by mentioning someone not represented on stamps but for whom I have a personally strong admiration. Today I salute the wonderful historian William Manchester (April 1, 1922 – June 1, 2004), whose important works include his three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion (completed recently by Paul Reid after nearly a decade of preparation), and the powerfully moving Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (1980). Manchester also wrote some novels in his younger days, but I haven’t read them. A mention of the late Debbie Reynolds (April 1, 1932 – December 28, 2016) would also seem to be in order.
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.