An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Classical music people dominate (at least numerically) in today’s Arts on Stamps of the World. We recognize composers Jean-Philippe Rameau and Dmitri Shostakovich and pianist Glenn Gould, among others. But it’s also the birthday of two American giants, William Faulkner and Mark Rothko.
I haven’t read as much William Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) as I should, only The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses (and other stories). Well, I also read the early novel Mosquitoes (1927) and quite enjoyed it, though (or perhaps because) it is unlike most of Faulkner’s later work and is frankly derivative and more conventional. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949 and the Pulitzer in 1954 (for A Fable) and 1962 (for The Reivers). As a Nobel laureate he gets a stamp from Sweden, a scenic one, in addition to the one from the United States.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764) was one of the greatest of French baroque composers, noted especially for his works for the stage and his harpsichord music. In the latter category his name is often paired with that of François Couperin, who wrote much more for the instrument—27 suites—than did Rameau (half a dozen or so, depending on how they’re divvied up), but for my part I’ve always found Rameau’s pieces to be much more interesting, inventive, and satisfying. The stamp, French, of course, comes from 1953.
The first stamp for Dmitri Shostakovich (25 September [O.S. 12 September] 1906 – 9 August 1975) was issued by the Soviet Union in the year of his death. (Can anyone identify the fortissimo passage cited?) The Czechoslovakian stamp next to it appeared in 1981. Russia issued a further two stamps for him in 1997 and 2000. The 1997 stamp quotes Shostakovich’s personal motto, D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B), corresponding to the initials of his name in German transliteration and German notation. Two clarifications may be in order here. In Russian, the composer’s initials would be Д and Ш, with the latter representing the sound we in English render as “sh”. In German, this sound requires three letters, s-c-h, as in “Schubert”. The German musical notation for the key of E-flat is “Es” ( = S, pronounced “ess”), and for B natural it’s “H”. Thus D-S-C-H corresponds to D[mitri] SCH[ostokowitsch, to use the German spelling]. Shostakovich used the motto in several of his works, including the Tenth Symphony and String Quartet no. 8, two of his very greatest scores.
Jaroslav Ježek was born on exactly the same day as Shostakovich, September 25, 1906. As a composer and pianist he straddled the worlds of classical and jazz. Almost blind from an early age, he studied composition with Josef Suk and Alois Hába. With the rise of Nazism he fled Czechoslovakia for New York City but died of chronic kidney disease on January 1, 1942.
September 25 is also the birthday of the great Glenn Gould (1932 – 4 October 1982), who appears on one of the very few Canadian stamps to salute classical musicians. An intellectually brilliant and highly eccentric character, Gould disliked performing in public and never did so after 1964, restricting his playing to the recording studio, where he famously (or infamously) often hummed along with the music. Bach was the centerpiece of Gould’s artistry, and he made some of the finest Bach recordings we have, but I strongly urge neophytes to stay away from his truly weird recordings of all the Mozart sonatas, at least until you know those works very well, whereupon you can get a number of chuckles from Gould’s highly mannered interpretations while marveling at the rapid finger work.
So why does Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970) have a stamp from Latvia? Because he was born there, duh. He came into the world Markus Yakovlevich Rotkovich in what was then Dvinsk in what was then the Russian Empire. He, his mother, and his sister Sonia entered the U.S. in 1913 and made their way across the country to join patriarch Jacob in Portland, Oregon. But the father died just months later of colon cancer, whereupon Markus turned his back forever on the religion of his forebears. He attended Yale on a scholarship, dropped out, went to New York, and happened to visit a friend at the Art Students League of New York. That was the catalyst. He studied with Arshile Gorky, whose teaching style did not suit young Markus, and Max Weber. His first one-man show was held in his childhood city of Portland in 1932, with another to follow in New York. Always apprehensive of anti-semitism, he became a US citizen in 1938 (to avoid possible deportation) and changed his name in 1940. It was in the 40s that he turned from the surrealist influence—exemplified in some measure by his Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (1944-45)—to the nebulously bordered blocks of color we associate with him today. Two examples appear on stamps of the United States (No. 12 of 1951) and France (untitled, 1964). Also from 1964 is the group of fourteen paintings he created for a nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas. These works inspired one of composer Morton Feldman’s best known scores, Rothko Chapel (1971). In declining health and separated from his wife, Mark Rothko committed suicide in his New York studio.
The great Swiss-born architect Francesco Borromini (25 September 1599 – 2 August 1667) also took his own life, having been a lifelong depressive. He was born an Francesco Castelli in the Ticino to a stonemason. Following in his father’s trade, he improved his craft in Milan and Rome, where he changed his name. His first major work was the design of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in 1634. Appearing on the stamp from the Vatican and the more recent one from Italy is the façade of the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (1640-50). His image also appears on stamps of Italy and Switzerland and on the old Swiss 100-franc banknote.
Despite his reputation as one of the foremost Austrian painters of the age, Martin Johann Schmidt, known as Kremser Schmidt (25 September 1718 – 28 June 1801), none of his works appears on any stamp except for the self-portrait (1790) on an Austrian stamp from 1951, the 150th anniversary of his death. As next year will be his tricentennial, I expect we’ll see some more at that time. He was born the son of a sculptor in the Danube town of Grafenwörth, west of Vienna, and spent most of his life in the region. Most of his work was in the form of altarpieces and other works for churches. He died in the town of Stein on the Danube, now within the confines of the municipality of Krems (thus “Kremser Schmidt”). For a few other examples of his work, I offer The Transfiguration of Christ, The Martyrdom of St. Vitus (c1772), and his altarpiece (1755) for the church of Waizenkirchen. I also chanced upon two variants of the same Family Portrait of 1790, one here and the other here, with no info regarding the altered figure at right.
Michał Kleofas Ogiński (25 September 1765 – 15 October 1833) was a remarkable figure for whom composing was something of an avocation. Most of his energies were devoted to politics and diplomacy; Grand Treasurer of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he was also a senator of Tsar Alexander I and wrote a volume of Memoirs on Poland and the Poles, 1788–1815, as well as a treatise, “Letters about music” (1828).
Lest you fall into a common error (well, I fell into it), Michał Kleofas Ogiński is not to be confused with his cousin Michał Kazimierz Ogiński (c1730 – 1800), a mistake easy to make given that the cousin was also a composer (seven operas, etc.). Our man Michał Kleofas Ogiński took violin lessons from Viotti and also learned to play the clavichord and the balalaika. He too composed an opera, Zelis et Valcour, set to his own libretto and dedicated to Napoleon in recognition of the emperor’s support for Polish independence. He started composing marches and military songs in the 1790s, and his other works include piano pieces, various dances and songs, and some twenty polonaises, one of which is entitled “Farewell to the Homeland”. Clearly his accomplishments are held in high regard, given that Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania have all issued stamps (plus a Belarusian postal card) in his honor.
For two separate topics we have a substantial number of stamps from China today, first to salute the important short story writer, essayist, and poet Lu Xun (sometimes seen as Lu Hsün; 25 September 1881 – 19 October 1936). His birth name was Zhou Zhangshou; as a teen he adopted the name Zhou Shuren, finally taking Lu Xun as his pen name in 1918. He received a Western education, partly because the school he attended was tuition-free, and took in the literature, philosophy, and history of the West, along with English and German. Choosing medicine, he furthered his studies in Japan. He had already experienced anti-Chinese prejudice from the Manchus and Japanese when he saw a photograph of a summary execution that led him to an epiphany: he abandoned his medical studies and turned to addressing what he saw as the spiritual decay of his people…through writing. His early efforts were discouraging, and he took up teaching and researching Chinese literature. In 1912 he began working at the Ministry of Education, where he remained, moving up the ladder, for fourteen years, during this time continuing his writing. A 1917 story was greatly admired, and Lu went on to write his best known tales during these years. Always a leftist (but never a Communist), Lu supported a student protest and was forced to flee the area. By 1927 he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, but refused the nomination. Lu’s troubles were not over, as in 1931 two dozen writers were executed by the Kuomintang for “endangering the public”, and Lu had to flee again, this time into Communist-held territory. But years of excessive drinking and smoking had weakened his health, and tuberculosis sealed his fate. His work was—selectively—championed by Mao, and partly for that reason Lu has been honored on many stamps of the PRC, from as early as 1951.
Next we come to Jesús Guridi Bidaola (1886–1961), a Spanish Basque composer who was influenced by the disparate worlds of Wagner and Basque culture, but who was also keenly interested in organ playing and improvisation. In Paris he studied with Vincent d’Indy and in Brussels with Joseph Jongen. The stamp shows him with a scene from his best known operetta or zarzuela El Caserío. Among his orchestral works are the Ten Basque melodies and for organ his Triptych of the Good Shepherd. He also wrote a Pyrenean Symphony in 1945 (available on Naxos) and a Homage to Walt Disney (!) for piano and orchestra in 1956. I bought the recording of the symphony and another Naxos CD of shorter orchestral works, all of which I found most appealing. In particular, the score “En un barco fenicio” (“In a Phoenician Vessel”) is a sort of extended Spanish “Une barque sur l’océan“, very evocative and haunting.
The Polish singer, dancer, and actress Hanka Ordonówna (or-do-NOV-na; née Maria Anna Pietruszyńśka; September 25, 1902 – September 8, 1950) got her start in cabaret in her native Warsaw. She was popular as a recording star and film actress between the wars. She married a count who wrote the lyrics for many of her songs. Before the war she toured the United States. Around this time she developed the tuberculosis that would later claim her life. She and her husband managed to escape from Poland in 1943, and she died in Beirut, aged 47.
Maria Tănase (ta-NAH-sheh; 1911 – 22 June 1963) was primarily a folk and pop singer, but she also performed chanson and operetta. In Wikipedia we are told she “has a similar importance in Romania to that of Édith Piaf in France.” Curiously, she must have been in the United States at about the same time as Ordonówna, as she represented Romania at the 1939 World’s Fair. During the war she performed for the troops, and afterward she appeared in a few films and frequently came to New York. Her early death, at age 49, was due to cancer.
Two famous American actors have birthdays today and stamps that get them admitted to the party: Michael Douglas (born September 25, 1944) and Mark Hamill (born September 25, 1951). I didn’t know that Douglas’s wife Catherine Zeta-Jones shares his birthday (born 25 September 1969). How ‘bout that?
And we conclude with a return to China for an acknowledgement of the official anniversary of the Peking (or Beijing) opera. This is but one of a number of subdivisions of Chinese opera, which had originated in its simplest forms as early as the fourth century. On this date in 1790, though, four troupes from Anhui joined in Beijing to perform before the Qianlong Emperor Hongli (25 September 1711 – 7 February 1799) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. This served as the founding of this particular branch of Chinese opera, augmented in 1828 by the addition of several renowned troupes from Hubei. Thereafter the synthesis of Anhui and Hubei styles gradually created Peking opera, which is held to have been fully developed as such by 1845. Beautiful stamps for the various forms of Chinese opera abound, but these are all specific to Peking opera, including a sheet from Liberia honoring the well-known piece The Monkey King. I had the great pleasure of observing a stunning performance of this work when a Chinese troupe visited Boston back in the 80s. Stamps at the top and bottom right are from Taiwan, the ones in the center from the PRC.
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.