An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
The birth date of Publius Vergilius Maro has traditionally been placed at October 15, 70 BC. This greatest of Roman poets, usually called Virgil in English, gave posterity the immortal Aeneid as well as the Eclogues and Georgics. The Aeneid was a standard school text even in ancient Rome. In 1930, for the 2,000th anniversary of his birth, Italy released a handsome set of nine stamps (plus four airmails, not shown) relating scenes from the Aeneid. On the 20 centesemi orange stamp, for example, we have Anchises and Aeneas observing the Roman legions; the 25c green shows Aeneas feasting in the shade of the Tiburtine Sibyl Albunea; and the 1.25 lira value (blue) offers Anchises and his sailors in sight of Italy. In 1981, for the bimillennium of the poet’s death (he is said to have died on September 21, 19 BC), Italy again honored Virgil, this time joined by San Marino and the Vatican. The Italian issue depicts a third-century mosaic of the poet discovered at Trier, while the French one shows another 2nd century Roman mosaic, and the San Marino sheet produces illustrations of Roman sculptures. By the way, today may also be the birthday of another great Roman writer, the philosopher Lucretius (c. 15 October 99 BC – c. 55 BC), author of De rerum natura.
The subject of philosophy brings us to the second of today’s Big Three birthday personalities. You may not be aware that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), besides writing about music (most memorably on Wagner), was also an amateur composer, mostly of songs and piano pieces. A substantial later work, Hymn to Life for chorus and orchestra, was published in 1887. His writings, of course, also inspired many pieces of music by other composers. In addition to Richard Strauss’s famous Also sprach Zarathustra, a partial list would include Mahler’s Third Symphony (third and fourth movements), Delius’s Mass of Life and Requiem, and works by Schoenberg, Taneyev, Diepenbrock, Reznicek, Medtner, and Peterson-Berger. Nietzsche is remembered on stamps of Germany (natch), Chad, and Togo.
Our triumvirate of greats winds up with Russian poet and rake Mikhail Lermontov (October 15 [O.S. October 3], 1814 – July 27 [O.S. July 15] 1841), whose words also inspired many composers. The name derives from a Scottish ancestor named Learmonth. After the early death of his mother to tuberculosis at 21, Lermontov, himself a sickly child, grew up with his grandmother, who provided him with a thorough home education. He learned French, German, and English and was rather spoiled. After university studies he joined the hussars and cut, as the saying goes, a dashing figure, though he was also ill-tempered and insolent. He kept his literary aspirations a secret, but a scathing poem about the death of Pushkin brought him to attention. It also earned him his first exile; the second was because of a duel. Lermontov’s trenchant wit cost him life—his relentless teasing led to another duel, one which this time he did not survive. Lermontov’s poetry was set by a virtual Who’s Who of Russian composers: Alyabiev, Arensky, Balakirev, Cui, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Kalinnikov, Khachaturian, Medtner, Mussorgsky, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, whose tone poem The Rock, Op. 7, was also partly inspired by Lermontov’s verses. Lermontov was also a gifted painter. The second (gray) Lermontov stamp is based on a Self-Portrait of 1837. The first one, also from 1939, the 125th anniversary of the poet’s birth, is derived from a work by Pyotr Zabolotsky (1803-1866). Another example of Lermontov’s own work as a painter is this landscape of Tiflis (this, too, dates from 1837). As you may expect, Russia has issued a variety of Lermontov stamps over the decades, most recently a souvenir sheet for his centenary three years ago. The Kazakhstan stamp just came out two years ago.
Another Russian poet of the same generation, but much less well known, was Alexei Koltsov (1809 – October 29, 1842), who has been likened to Robert Burns in his celebration of the lives and work of simple country folk. Born to a boorish and domineering cattle merchant, Koltsov had to quit school to help with the business but continued writing poems without telling Daddy. Some of these were published in 1831, and a collection in book form followed in 1835. The one advantage of business travel was that it brought Koltsov into contact with the critic Vissarion Belinsky, whom Koltsov regarded as his mentor. Unfortunately Koltsov, suffering from both depression and tuberculosis, expired at the age of 33. He was buried in his home town of Voronezh. Several of the composers named above (Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, et al.) also set Koltsov’s poetry. I could find only a single stamp in his honor.
Before we leave Russia (but moving on to the third collage), let’s turn back the clock a bit and salute the chief architect of the Moscow of his day, Prince Dmitry Ukhtomsky, who died on this date in 1774. Born to an ancient family in 1719, he went to school in Moscow and studied architecture, earning his license in 1744. He built temporary pavilions and arches for the coronation of Tsarina Elisabeth I in 1742, and one of these, Red Gate, shown on the stamp, was recreated in stone. This was demolished, though, in 1927, to make way for an avenue expansion. (The angel surmounting the gate, along with other artifacts, were preserved. Coincidentally, the square was renamed Lermontov Square between 1962 and 1986.) Ukhtomsky created many other structures for the city, but most of these have been lost to fires or renovations. An exception is the Church of the Martyr Nikita (1745-51). During this same period, Ukhtomsky was responsible for master plans for the redevelopment of sections of the city and also founded an architectural school in 1749. Alas, Ukhtomsky was accused of fraud in 1760, and the school closed in 1764. He never returned to Moscow despite his exoneration in 1770.
We have one Baroque painter to visit before the clock resumes its forward motion. I refer to Friar Juan Bautista Maíno, who was baptized on this date in 1581. Born in Guadalajara, he lived in Italy from 1600 to 1608. In 1611 he moved to Toledo and two years later became a Dominican. Maíno painted altarpieces, miniature portraits, etc. He may have been a pupil of El Greco. He was tutor to King Felipe IV from 1620 and, while at court, helped secure patronage for the architect and sculptor Alonso Cano and also gave assistance to Velázquez. The stamp from Benin shows his Adoration of the Magi (between 1612 and 1614). A detail of this same work may be a self-portrait. Another of Maíno’s works is this Adoration of the Shepherds (between 1611 and 1613). Maíno died on 1 April 1649.
The German artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach (15 October 1805 – 7 April 1874) was mainly a muralist, but also a book illustrator. It was one of his paintings that inspired the eleventh of Liszt’s symphonic poems, Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns, c1850). This work recalls a legend that during the battle of the Catalaunian Fields between Attila and Rome in AD 451, the spirits of those killed rose into the air to continue their combat. Although I can find no stamp in Kaulbach’s honor, he is saved from philatelic oblivion by the fact that one of his designs, “Genius”, also graces a set of stamps, the last ones, as it happens, issued by independent Bavaria in 1920 (note the “Deutsches Reich” overprint). His father was a goldsmith, painter, and engraver, but extremely poor. It’s thought that Kaulbach’s first major piece, The Fall of Manna in the Wilderness, reflected the hunger of his young days. Somehow he was able to attend the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts and entered the studio of Peter von Cornelius, whom Kaulbach succeeded as director of the Munich Academy. He executed many works for that city and became a prolific book illustrator. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1870.
The fascinating Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian was also born on October 15 (O.S. October 3) in the year 1809. Held by some to be the father of modern Armenian literature, he was the first to use the modern Armenian language rather then Classical Armenian. Abovian was also the first writer from Armenia to create children’s literature. His most significant work, perhaps, was the novel Wounds of Armenia (written in 1841 but not published posthumously until 1858), the first to address the adversity of the Armenians in the face of Persian occupation and the Russo-Persian war of 1826-28. Abovian studied for the priesthood from the ages of 10 to 15. A turning point in the young man’s life was the arrival of a Russian (Estonian) professor of natural history, Friedrich Parrot, who desired to climb Mount Ararat to study the geology of the area. He needed a local guide and translator, and Abovian was chosen for the job. With his help, Parrot became the first modern explorer to reach the summit. Parrot was struck by the young guide’s intellectual curiosity and arranged for him to study at the University of Dorpat on a Russian state scholarship. At the school from 1830 to 1836, Abovian amply demonstrated his abilities, learning sciences, European literature and philosophy, and the German, Russian, French, and Latin languages. Thus equipped, Abovian hoped to bring enlightenment to his homeland, but he met firm resistance and hostility from the Armenian clergy and Tsarist officials. Nevertheless, he was named supervisor of a school in Tiflis in 1839 and managed to last there until 1843. On April 14 (O.S. April 2), 1848, Abovian went missing after an early morning walk, his fate remaining unknown to this day. Abovian’s output consisted of novels, stories, and plays, as well as verses and fables and scientific and historic works, even an Introduction to Education (1838), a collection of algebra exercises, and a Russian grammar textbook! His satirical poetry is exemplified by “The Wine Jug” (publ. 1912), a criticism of Russian bureaucracy. He was in favor of easy accessibility to schools, equal education for children of both sexes, and free tuition for the poor. In 1961 a village near Yerevan was renamed for him. There is a 2011 Estonian documentary, Journey to Ararat, about his expedition with Parrot. The image on the stamp comes from the only portrait of Abovian to be made during his lifetime (1830), by one Ludwig von Maydell of Dorpat University.
I adore the paintings of Jacques Joseph Tissot (15 October 1836 – 8 August 1902), better known as James Tissot. He was born and grew up in Nantes and by his teens was such an Anglophile that he started calling himself James. He went to study in Paris under two artists who had learned their craft directly from Ingres. He became acquainted with Whistler, Degas, and Manet and exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War and after the defeat relocated to London in 1871, returning to Paris in 1885. OK, the pictures. The Mozambique sheet focuses exclusively on the representations of fashionably dressed women that occupied Tissot in his London years: on the top row, October (1877); Seaside (1878); and Lilacs (1875); on the bottom The Bridesmaid (1883); Young Lady Holding Japanese Objects; and Young Lady In A Boat. The Togolese sheet combines images on each stamp, so that the first shows a photograph of Tissot against his painting The Ball. One the second we see his 1865 Self-Portrait together with Orphan. On the third another photo of the artist partly obscures The Two Sisters. Finally, a later Self-Portrait of 1898 seems to show Tissot leaning against a giant palette.
Also born on this day was the Irish soprano Margaret Burke Sheridan (1859 – 16 April 1958). She made her debut in La bohème at Rome in 1918 (the stamp design reflects that) and introduced Mascagni’s Iris to London audiences the next year. She was at La Scala in the early 1920s and retired as a result of vocal and health problems in 1930. A complete recording of Madama Butterfly with Burke Sheridan was made in 1929 and 1930.
Back to painting for Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval (15 October 1885 – 13 April 1972) of Iceland. Born in poverty, he worked as a fisherman but loved to draw and paint in his spare time and was able to get lessons from the professional painter Ásgrímur Jónsson. Funded by his well-disposed fellow fishermen and the Icelandic Confederation of Labor, he attended the Royal Danish Academy. Over his long life Kjarval produced thousands of paintings and drawings, many of them landscapes, and explored a wide variety of styles, symbolist, cubist, absurdist, abstract, often a mixture of these. The stamp from 1985 shows Yearning to Fly. Kjarval’s importance to the Icelandic people may be gauged by the fact that his portrait appears on the 2000 kronor banknote of 1986 with this very same painting and his drawing Woman and Flowers on the reverse.
Another birthday personage for October 15 is German choral conductor and organist Günther Ramin (1898 – 27 February 1956). He was a choirboy in the Thomanerchor at age 12. (Incidentally, the Thomanerchor is coming to Jordan Hall on Sunday, November 12 at 3pm as part of the Boston Celebrity Series.) Ramin went on to become the Thomaskirche’s organist between the wars. (He received the news of his appointment while serving on the front in WWI.) He began to concentrate more on conducting and eventually became the conductor of the Philharmonic choir of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In a less favorable light, he was organist for the 1936 Nuremberg Rally. On New Year’s Day 1940, Ramin was appointed cantor of the Thomanerchor, a post he held for the rest of his life. He is particularly associated with the choral works of Bach and left recordings of a number of the cantatas and an abridged Matthew Passion. He also composed a few organ and sacred choral works and a Violin Sonata (1922).
As I’ve said here often, I include chess players because I view great games as works not only of genius but of art. The Cuban chess master María Teresa Mora (15 October 1902 – 3 October 1980), born and died in Havana, was the only person who received direct lessons from the great Capablanca (whose birthday is a month off). She was the first woman to win the Cuban Chess Championship (this was in 1922) and was named a Woman International Master (WIM) in 1950.
The pair of stamps showing American actress Jean Peters (October 15, 1926 – October 13, 2000) show her in a persona she constantly fought to avoid—the vamp. Of course, it is for just such a role, the seductive siren in Pickup on South Street (1953), that she is probably best remembered. But Peters much preferred less flashy roles, and wasn’t afraid to say so, sometimes to her cost. At about 19 she won the Miss Ohio State Pageant, the prize being a screen test with 20th Century-Fox. Her first prominent part was in Captain from Castile (1947) with Tyrone Power. When offered a similar role in the western Yellow Sky (1948), she turned it down, saying it was “too sexy”. The studio, having none of that, put her on suspension. She was happier in roles like the one for Viva Zapata! (1952) opposite Marlon Brando, but her acceptance of the Pickup on South Street part did boost her career. Her next few pictures were Three Coins in the Fountain and the westerns Apache, starring Burt Lancaster, and Broken Lance (all from 1954). After just one more movie and following her marriage to Howard Hughes (1957-71), she retired from acting, except for some television appearances.
Swedish actress Kari Sylwan (born 15 October 1940) is no doubt best known in America for her role as Anna in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), a scene from which shows her with co-star Harriet Andersson on the stamp. She also appeared in his Face to Face (1976), but the focus of Sylwan’s career has been as a dancer. From the age of 16 in 1956 she performed with the Royal Swedish Ballet and the Cullberg Ballet, and in more recent times she acted as vice-chancellor of the University College of Dance in Stockholm (1996-2005) and, more recently still, has starred in a couple of Swedish music videos. In 2005 she received the King’s Medal for her contributions to dance.
Norwegian pop singer Morten Abel Knutsen (born October 15, 1962), who goes by the stage name Morten Abel, has founded four rock groups going back to 1981 and is one of the country’s best-selling performers. He had a solo single in 1985 and released his first solo album in 1997. Abel has also acted in a couple of Norwegian movies.
Two classical music venues opened on this date. The Royal Danish Theater had been founded in 1748, but the opening of what we now call the Old Stage took place on 15 October 1874. And Berlin Philharmonie Hall, designed by Hans Scharoun, opened on this date in 1963, when Herbert von Karajan led the Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (The old Philharmonie had been destroyed by British bombers on 30 January 1944.)
I Love Lucy premiered on CBS on this date 65 years ago (October 15, 1951). It ran until May 6, 1957.
It happens that the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (15 October 1686 – 7 January 1758), whose namesake son the painter we acknowledged here just the day before yesterday, has a birthday today, as do P. G. Wodehouse (1881 – 14 February 1975) and Italo Calvino (1923 – 19 September 1985).
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.