The Arts on the Stamps of the World — April 7

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


By Doug Briscoe

Today we celebrate the birthday of William Wordsworth, Billie Holiday, Ravi Shankar, Gabriela Mistral, Japanese koto player Michio Miyagi, seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gerrit Dou, Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini, and Polish comic actor Adolf Dymsza.


From yesterday’s Raphael we turn to today’s El Greco. Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in the year 1541, he died on this date in 1614. Again, his work can be seen on a great many postage stamps of the world. We begin with a set of ten from Spain, the painter’s adopted home from 1577. (He was born on Crete and lived for some years in Venice and Rome.) The bottom row of the Spanish set is bracketed by examples from Burundi and New Zealand. Below that is a five-stamp set from Greece, with the one at right being a sample of El Greco’s signature, typically given in full and painted in Greek letters. At second row left and again among the Greek stamps is a work believed to be the master’s self-portrait. At the top row of our second collage are El Greco stamps from Eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and we bid farewell to El Greco with issues from Equatorial Guinea (St. Sebastian), Rwanda (Saints Peter and Paul), and Nicaragua (Christ stripped of his garments).

Philatelically speaking, writers always take a back seat to painters, and William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850) has in all the world but a single stamp. (Well, OK, there’s also a bland pair of sheets from Grenada showing children at play, with quotations from Wordsworth at the edges, but, you know, poetic license.) Wordsworth had a sonnet published when he was seventeen. He met Coleridge when he was 25, and the two friends traveled with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy to Germany in 1798. While Coleridge found stimulation in the new surroundings, Wordsworth felt only homesickness and began work on his magnum opus The Prelude (although that title was not his), a work that would occupy him for many years. Wordsworth also wrote the famous “Lucy poems” while in Goslar. The poetry of Wordsworth has inspired a goodly number of mostly British and American composers. Benjamin Britten used one (“But that night when on my bed I lay”) for the fifth movement of his Nocturne. Gerald Finzi wrote an extended cycle on “Intimations of Immortality”, as did Dominick Argento in his “To be sung upon the water”. “My heart leaps up” was set by Charles Ives, Paul Moravec, and Ned Rorem. George Dyson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Mario Castenuovo-Tedesco, Jack Beeson, Leon Kirchner, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are among the other composers who set Wordwsorth, along with Josef Rheinberger in a German translation. The poet’s brother was the ancestor of composer William Brocklesby Wordsworth (1908-88), who wrote eight symphonies, three concertos, and six string quartets in a Romantic idiom.

Jazz great Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on this date in 1915. She grew up in wretched circumstances: her teenaged parents were unwed, her father abandoned the family, she was abused by a neighbor and was kept in custody of the state for several months, she worked in a brothel and, not surprisingly, turned to prostitution and was arrested. She was not yet fourteen. She began singing, using a stage name taken from the actress Billie Dove and her father’s name, Halliday. (He was a musician and used the professional name Holiday, which she soon adopted, too.) Billie made her first recording with Benny Goodman at the age of 18. One of the two songs, “Riffin’ the Scotch”, sold 5,000 copies. She took part in Duke Ellington’s short film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life and went on to sing with Count Basie. Soon she was dismissed—it seems she had a difficult temperament—but was hired right away by Artie Shaw as one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. Holiday was a great success and made a lot of money, but she turned to drug abuse and was twice arrested for that in the late 1940s. Between those two arrests she had a Carnegie Hall concert that was sold out despite her not having a hit record on the charts. Holiday toured Europe a couple of times, but her downward spiral was set, her health and voice were affected, and she died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959.


Two Eastern musicians who also dabbled in the Western tradition share this April 7 birthday. The beloved Ravi Shankar (1920 – 11 December 2012), who started as a dancer, worked in later years with Westerners like Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison and wrote two concertos for his instrument, the sitar, with full orchestra. He died at 92, and the stamp was issued the next year.

Michio Miyagi (April 7, 1894 – June 25, 1956) went blind at the age of eight and devoted the rest of his life to the koto. He achieved the rank of kengyo, the highest for a koto performer, when he was just 18. Again there is an East-meets-West connection, as one of his compositions was arranged by the French violinist Renée Chemet in 1932; they recorded the arrangement together. Miyagi composed some 500 pieces, invented two types of koto, and wrote essays and ten books. He died after falling from a train.

Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 10 January 1957) was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga. Abandoned by her schoolteacher father before she was three, she helped support her mother by working as a teacher’s aide. Her first poems were published when she was 20, by which time she had already settled on her pseudonym, which may been derived from the names of two poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral, or from the Archangel Gabriel and the Mistral wind of Provence. Take your pick. She won a literary prize with her Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death) in 1914. The preoccupation with death characteristic in her poetry probably originated with the suicide of a friend some years earlier, only to be strongly reinforced near the end of her life by the suicide of a beloved teenaged nephew. Mistral taught at many schools, always rising to better positions until she was appointed as director of a highly prestigious girls’ school in Santiago in 1921. Along the way, one of her students was Pablo Neruda. She worked at a national level in Mexico and gave speaking tours in the United States and Europe. By 1925 her stature was such that she was asked to work with the League of Nations, and her diplomatic career was launched. Moving to France in 1926, she never returned to Chile. The proceeds from the sale of her poetry volume Tala (1938) went to orphans of the Spanish Civil War. In 1945 Mistral became the first person from Latin America to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She spent her final years on Long Island. Her poetry has been set by such composers as Harald Genzmer, Gottfried von Einem, and Edison Denisov. Today there is a Gabriela Mistral University in Santiago, and her picture appears on the Chilean 5,000 peso banknote. She is represented on two stamps from her native Chile and one each from Uruguay and Ecuador.


The father of Dutch painter Gerrit Dou (7 April 1613 – 9 February 1675) was a stained-glass manufacturer, but sent his fourteen-year-old son to study at the nearby studio of a painter, one Rembrandt, who was himself only 21 at the time. The older artist’s influence can be more clearly seen in Dou’s Girl plucking grapes, a work now lost, than in the Young woman on a balcony (c1665), which appears on a dual issue from the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein. Dou left about 200 small paintings.

Italian painter Gino Severini (7 April 1883 – 26 February 1966) was born in Cortona and went to school there until being expelled, not merely from that school, mind you, but from the entire Italian school system, for stealing exam papers. At sixteen he moved to Rome with his mother and there became interested in painting. A well-to-do person from Cortona paid for his studies, but cut off support after a couple of years when Severini’s work left him bewildered. In 1906, Severini relocated to Paris and rubbed elbows with Modigliani, Dufy, and Braque. He joined the Futurist movement and took an interest in Cubism. The two stamps we have, however, show Severini’s much later semi-abstract work. Exhaustive googling did not lead me to specifics regarding the date of the painting at left, called simply Abstract; it is typical of many similar Severini pieces. The one at right is Dance of the Bear from 1913.

Comic actor Adolf Dymsza (born Adolf Bagiński; 7 April 1900 – 20 August 1975) was enormously popular in his native Poland in the first half of the 20th century, both in theater and in film. Andrzej Wajda once said of him that Dymsza symbolized pre-war Polish cinema. His work as a singer and dancer in cabaret led to greater successes and to leading roles in two dozen films before the war. He broke the actors’ boycott and continued working during the Nazi occupation, as a resuly of which he was banned from public performance for about five years, but was then warmly embraced by the post-war Poles. It has been suggested that audiences were attracted by his evocations or reminders of the carefree pre-war life.

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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