The Arts on the Stamps of the World — April 29

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


By Doug Briscoe

What a day! Even with so many stars, however, it’s easy to pick the brightest—Duke Ellington—but another jazz meister, Toots Thielemans, was born on April 29, too. From the classical music world, we have no fewer than three prominent conductors, Thomas Beecham, Malcolm Sargent, and Zubin Mehta, along with composers Carl Millöcker and František Ondříček. We have the important Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, and just look at this roster of screen performers: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jerry Seinfeld, Tino Rossi, Uma Thurman, and Kate Mulgrew! And that still leaves us with perhaps the most important 18th-century Russian architect, painters from India and Hungary, a Czech writer, a Tamil poet, and Willie Nelson! So hold your breath.

Duke Ellington (29 April 1899 – May 24, 1974) needs no introduction, but classical music aficionados may not know that in the 1930s he began composing longer pieces, leading eventually to his extended semi-symphonic Suites. The two US stamps—one of them from a set honoring vintage Black cinema—are joined by issues from Togo, Mali (x2), and France.
Coincidentally, two of the greatest English conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 8 March 1961) and Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895 – 3 October 1967) share an April 29 birthday. The similar design of the stamps is a clue that both of these come from the same set of four British conductor stamps issed by the UK in 1980.

Zubin Mehta turns 81 today. Born in Bombay (Mumbai), the son of a conductor and violinist, Zubin Mehta was named music director of the Montreal Symphony as long ago as 1960, when he was just 24. Since then, Mehta has been at the helm of the Philharmonic Orchestras of Los Angeles, New York, and Israel, as well as of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Bavarian State Opera. In 1992, Mehta appeared on a postal souvenir sheet issued by the Maldive Islands in commemoration of the anniversaries of the New York Philharmonic and of Lincoln Center. He also appears on the last of a series of stamps issued by Austria between 2004 and 2007 for the famous New Year’s Eve in Vienna concerts, which Mehta has (so far) conducted on five occasions.


The name Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700 – 29 April 1771) may not be instantly recognizable to most, but this French-born architect of Italian descent left a substantial number of splendid palaces and other buildings in his wake, all of them in Russia. First and foremost are the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and the “new” Catherine Palace (to replace one built for Catherine I in 1717) in Tsarskoye Selo. Rastrelli’s precise birthdate is unknown. He went with his father, a sculptor, to Russia in 1716 and lived there for the rest of his life, another 55 years. He died on this date in 1771. Over that time, having risen to the rank of senior court architect in 1730, Rastrelli created the palaces of Peterhof, Vorontsov, Mariinsky, Stroganov, and others, Saint Andrew’s Church at Kiev and, his most ambitious project, the Smolny Convent in St. Petersburg, where nearby a square was named for him in 1923. I found stamps depicting this last edifice, the Winter Palace (on a pre-Revolutionary stamp of 1913), and the Catherine Palace. His style was not favored by Catherine’s namesake Catherine the Great, though, and in his old age Rastrelli was reduced to the indignity of working on palaces for dukes. By the way, in the year 2000 Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero wrote an orchestral piece with oboe solo called “Rastrelli in Saint Petersburg”.

The remarkable Egyptian-Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (or Kavafis); 29 April [17 April OS], 1863 – April 29, 1933) was thoroughly cosmopolitan. His father was a well-traveled and well-to-do importer-exporter who had lived in England and become a British citizen; the son was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and on the death of the father when Constantine was seven, relocated to Liverpool; four years later the family returned to Alexandria, where, but for a brief spell in Constantinople and a period in France, Cavafy lived for the rest of his life. His first work was in journalism, and as I understand it none of his poems appeared in book form during his lifetime, and in consequence his work was little known until after World War I and in particular the succeeding Greco-Turkish War, when his nostalgia and existentialism struck a responsive chord. Pointedly perfectionist, Cavafy wrote on historical or quasihistorical subjects, homoerotic poems, and philosophical poems. He was a friend of E. M. Forster and admired by T. S. Eliot. He appears as a character in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, with a couple of his poems translated by Durrell in the novel’s appendix. David Hockney created a series of prints in 1966 as illustrations of some of Cavafy’s poems. An eponymous Greek biopic about the poet was made in 1996 (Vangelis wrote the music for it.) The late Leonard Cohen adapted Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony” in his song “Alexandra Leaving”.

The Austrian Carl Millöcker (1842 – 31 December 1899) wrote operettas, the most famous being The Beggar Student, and the Czech František Ondříček (1857 – 12 April 1922), besides writing mostly small pieces for his instrument the violin (and one string quartet), also gave the première of Dvořák’s great Violin Concerto in 1883.
Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848–2 October 1906) was born to a noble family related to royalty. (In fact, because of a succession crisis in the year 1900, his descendants today constitute the entirety of the Royal House of Travancore.) Varma’s work, which concentrates on religious Hindu depictions, combines Indian subject matter and sensibility with Western techniques. His work received an award in Vienna in 1873. Varma also started a lithographic printing press in 1894 that printed thousands of copies of his works until the factory was destroyed in a fire in 1972. Many of Varma’s works can be seen on his Wikipedia page.


While we’re on the subcontinent, let’s discuss the Tamil poet Bharathidasan, whose birth name was Kanakasabai Subburathinam (29 April 1891 – 21 April 1964). He was born to an affluent merchant family of Pondicherry. His writing was almost entirely devoted to social and political causes, the Indian Independence and Dravidian movements prime among them. Like many a dissident, he was imprisoned for a time for his open opposition to the French Government, which ruled Pondicherry and other settlements in India until 1954. (As a matter of philatelic interest, I juxtapose an example of a French Indian stamp from 1929.) Besides poetry, Bharathidasan also wrote plays, screenplays, short stories, and essays. Some of his poems were used as lyrics in songs for films.

Hungarian painter Adolf Fényes (FAIN-yesh), too, was born to highly distinguished family: his father was a rabbi, and his uncle was the first Jewish Member of the Parliament of that country. Born Fischmann (1867 – 4 March 1945), he took the name Fényes when he moved to Budapest in 1886. He studied in Weimar and under William-Adolphe Bouguereau in Paris and was one of the founders of the Szolnok artists colony. His old age saw the coming of fascism and the Second World War. Although Jewish, he was granted an “immunity” and survived the siege of Budapest only to suffer a stroke; other sources claim he died of starvation. From happier times comes the thoroughly charming Brother and Sister (1906). English language Wikipedia gives an exhaustive list of his pictures (and a few images), but no biographical information whatsoever.

The writer Egon Kisch (29 April 1885 – 31 March 1948) was luckier. Also Jewish and a journalistically vociferous anti-Nazi, he was living in Berlin when he was arrested the day after the Reichstag fire and briefly held in Spandau before being expelled from Germany. Kisch, an Austrian, was born and died in Prague. His first work was for a German-language newspaper in that city and focused on crime and poverty. He broke the story of the Alfred Redl spy scandal (retold in István Szabó’s 1985 film Colonel Redl). Kisch served on the front lines in Serbia and the Carpathians during World War I and was briefly imprisoned for his written criticisms of the Austrian military. Reinstated, he worked in the press corps alongside Franz Werfel and Robert Musil, but deserted in 1918. In the November of that year he took a leading part in the revolution in Vienna and soon thereafter joined the Communist Party. Something of a globe-trotter, Kisch called himself Der rasende Reporter (The Frenzied Reporter), visiting Russia, the US, Central Asia, and China and writing Communist-leaning books on his travels. He and his wife left Europe in 1939. Denied entry into the US, they moved on to Mexico and remained there for five years, returning home after the war. You’ll note that the stamp (accompanied by a label showing his birthplace) comes from the DDR. Because of his avowed Communism Kisch was viewed as more problematic in the West, yet Stern magazine named its journalism award for him in 1977 (it was renamed in 2005).


Another very interesting person arrested by the authorities (but not the Nazis this time) was French singer/actor Tino Rossi (29 April 1907 – 26 September 1983), born in Corsica. He started as a cabaret singer and moved on to films. His career had already been long established when in late 1944 he was picked up and accused of collaborationism. He had indeed thrived during the occupation, but had also assisted the resistance and was cleared of all charges. Rossi’s tenor voice was heard in popular song, operetta, and art songs by such composers as Massenet and Reynaldo Hahn. He collaborated (in a non-compromising way) with songwriter Vincent Scotto for many years. He sold sold more than 700 million records, more than any other French singer up to this day, and won the Grand Prix du Disque. His most celebrated hit was probably “Petit Papa Noël” (1946, 80 million copies sold) and his best film Sacha Guitry’s Si Versailles m’était conté… (1954).

Belgian-born jazz musician Toots Thielemans (29 April 1922 – 22 August 2016), a more than able player on a variety of instruments, carved out a niche in jazz for the harmonica. He taught himself how to play it (along with the accordion and the guitar) in his childhood. As early as 1949 he was playing in Paris with the likes of Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker (with whom he is paired on the stamp), and Miles Davis, and he joined Benny Goodman’s European tours that year and the next. He moved to the US in 1952 and became a citizen in 1957. He recorded with Ella Fitzgerald (whose birthday was just the other day), among many others. Thielemans composed the jazz standard “Bluesette” in 1962, frequently collaborated (there’s that word again) with Quincy Jones, and worked on many film soundtracks including those for The Pawnbroker (1964), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Jean de Florette (1986). Belgian King Albert II created him Baron Thielemans in 2001.

Serghei Lunchevici (1934 – 15 August 1995) was primarily a folk violinist, but also played in the Chișinău (kee-shi-NOW) Philharmonic in the 1950s. I think his name is pronounced LOONK-eh-vitch.

We wind up today with a collective salute to the movies and TV and country music. (Most of these stamps come from revenue-earning sheets not really designed as postage and issued by countries in Africa and the Caribbean.) One of the great actors of our time, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis celebrates his birthday—he turns 60 today—just two days after his illustrious father’s. The stamp comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stamp for Willie Nelson (born April 29, 1933) is drawn from a sheet featuring American country and Western performers issued by Antigua and Barbuda. The Seinfeld stamp honors the TV show, not so much the comedian himself, and is part of the 20th-century retrospective series issued by the US in 1999. Jerry Seinfeld turns 63 (!) today. The Michelle Pfeiffer (born 1954) and Uma Thurman (born 1970) items come from Madagascar and Guinea respectively, and of Kate Mulgrew’s two stamps, the first is the center one from a Star Trek: Voyager sheet issued by St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the other one was just issued two days ago (!) by Canada as part of a new Star Trek captains sheet. (Get ‘em while you can!) She was born on April 29, 1955.

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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