Revisiting a former Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
On account of “technical difficulties” last April 22nd, the piece for this date never made it to the illustrious pages of The Arts Fuse. Today we rectify that sad omission.
Let us celebrate two great writers (and one worthy one), two of the greatest classical musicians, one of the greatest jazz musicians, one of the last pupils of Liszt, and a popular Indian filmmaker, all born on April 22 in various years. I refer to Henry Fielding, Vladimir Nabokov, Germaine de Staël, Kathleen Ferrier, Yehudi Menuhin, Charles Mingus, José Vianna da Motta, and B. R. Chopra.
The author of Tom Jones (1749), Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754), was also very active as a playwright throughout the 1730s, and some of these plays were of such a nature that they contributed to, if not directly inspiring, the Licensing Act of 1737, designed to censor drama. The law, though modified in 1843, was in effect until 1968. After the door to theater was effectively closed to him, Fielding turned to the writing of political and critical satires, the most elaborate and celebrated of which was his parodistic novel Shamela (1741), a take-off on Samuel Richardson’s enormously successful Pamela of the previous year. There followed a spin-off, Joseph Andrews (1742), in which Fielding took up the tale of Pamela’s brother. Fielding was also significant in the law, as a magistrate who in 1749 founded the Bow Street Runners, a precursor of the modern police force that existed for ninety years. It may seem odd that the only stamp for him is not British, but Russian, issued by the Soviet Union in 1957.
The consummate mastery of the English language demonstrated by Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (22 April [O.S. 10 April] 1899 – 2 July 1977) is less surprising (though still impressive) when one takes into account the fact that he grew up trilingual, speaking Russian, English, and French in more or less equal measure. He wrote his first nine novels in Russian, even though the family emigrated after the Russian Revolution. Nabokov lived in Cambridge, England, where he attended Trinity College, Berlin, and France before coming to the United States. His first job was as an entomologist (a central interest for him) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also on the staff of Wellesley College and curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He wrote Lolita while hunting butterflies during summer vacations in the West. Nabokov spent his final years in Montreux, Switzerland. Last year in these pages we included chess players in our lineups in the belief that chess can be an art form. Nabokov, who created chess problems as a hobby, concurred. To quote Wikipedia: “To him, the ‘originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity’ of creating a chess problem was similar to that in any other art.” For him we show, not a stamp, but the corner from a Russian postal card of 1999.
The father of Germaine de Staël (1766 – 14 July 1817), Jacques Necker, held the position of Finance Minister in the reign of Louis XVI, and her mother, Suzanne Curchod, was the hostess of one of the most exclusive salons in Paris, where young Germaine was regularly in attendance. It is said that William Pitt the Younger (whose father had been a close friend of Henry Fielding!) considered marrying her. In the event she married a Swedish diplomat. Madame de Staël had started writing plays when she was twenty. With the coming of the French Revolution she fled to Switzerland, returning to her father’s estate near Geneva, and there she set up her own much celebrated salon (visitors would include Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington). Having imbibed the principles of Rousseau from childhood, she became a vocal critic of Napoleon. He exiled her (the first time) subsequent to the appearance of her feminist novel Delphine and again after Corinne, the source of the famous words, “Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent“—”To know all is to forgive all.”
English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912 – 8 October 1953), one of the great singers of the 20th century, came to prominence in the 1940s. She sang in the first performances of Britten‘s Rape of Lucretia and Spring Symphony. She had a warm working relationship with Bruno Walter, who famously remarked: “The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler—in that order.” She succumbed to cancer at the age of 41, but left a considerable recorded legacy.
Another towering figure in 20th-century classical music was the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin (22 April 1916 – 12 March 1999). His father was a Belorussian Jewish immigrant originally named Mnukhin. Yehudi gave his first public concert at age seven with the San Francisco Symphony. Thereafter he took lessons with Eugène Ysaÿe (actually, just one lesson with him), George Enescu, and Adolf Busch. (Like Kathleen Ferrier, he also played under Bruno Walter.) At fifteen he made his first concerto recording (the Bruch g-minor) billed as “Master Yehudi Menuhin”. Three years later he made the famous recording of the Elgar concerto with the composer conducting. There is so much more to the rich story of Menuhin’s life, but we must move on. Only Kyrgyzstan took up the slack in 2016 to pay tribute to the great man with a stamp for his centenary.
And yet another giant, this time in jazz, shares this April 22 birthday: Charles Mingus Jr. (1922 – January 5, 1979) was one of the finest jazz bassists in the business and, like Ellington, had a discerning ear for the particular skills of his musicians. This came into play not only when he formed his own groups but in the music he wrote for them. The inventiveness of his compositions was such that the late Gunther Schuller held him as one of America’s finest composers. Among Mingus’s earlier collaborators in the 40s were Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton, whose stamp we saw just three days ago. Mingus was notorious for waxing wroth with colleagues and audiences alike. Once be berated a noisy restaurant crowd by saying, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this s–t.” A sufferer of depression and ALS, which claimed his life at age 56, Mingus directed that his ashes be scattered in the Ganges.
Portuguese pianist and composer José Vianna da Motta (1868 – 1 June 1948), born on São Tomé Island, was as a teenager one of the last pupils of Liszt (1885). Later he and Busoni became close friends. He made some piano rolls in 1906.
Baldev Raj Chopra (1914 – 5 November 2008) was active in Bollywood movies and television. He was an English major who took over the editorship of a Lahore monthly called the Cine Herald, but with the partition of India he moved to Delhi and later Mumbai. He produced his first film in 1948 and directed his first in 1951. The latter, Afsana, was a hit starring the actor Ashok Kumar (who also has a stamp in the same sheet from which this Chopra stamp is drawn). The first release of Chopra’s own production house, B.R. Films, was Naya Daur (1957), another great success. He also made several films with his brother Yash Chopra in the 50s and 60s. B.R. Chopra died at the age of 94.
Hiding, as it were, in plain sight, right in the center of today’s collage, is the best online image I could find of a Republic of Guinea sheet honoring Golden Globe winners, one of whom, Jack Nicholson, celebrates his 81st birthday today! (Can you believe 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 in 2017 was expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.