An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
October 26 is the birthday of three 18th-century composers—Domenico Scarlatti is foremost—and one from the 19th. It’s also Mahalia Jackson’s birthday. Otherwise, oddly enough, the rest of our crew is all Eastern European, with two Russians, a Romanian, a Moldavian, and a Serb.
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 23 July 1757) was the son of Alessandro Scarlatti. Famous today for his 555 harpsichord sonatas, he served royalty in Naples (the royal chapel), Rome (the Polish Queen Marie Casimire, widow of John Sobieski), Lisbon (the Princess Maria Magdalena Barbara), and Madrid (the same princess, who had married into the Spanish royal family and later became queen of that country). Yet neither Italy, where he was born, nor Spain, where he spent the last twenty-eight years of his life, has issued a Domenico Scarlatti stamp, but there is one from Ireland, issued in 1985 for the tercentenaries of Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel.
Johan Helmich Roman (1694 – 20 November 1758) met Handel during the six years he spent in London (1715-21). He is known in some quarters as “the Swedish Handel”. He, too, was in the royal service, though in his case in his native country. His best known work is the”Drottningholm Music” (1744) he wrote for the wedding of Crown Prince Adolf Frederick of Sweden and Louisa Ulrika of Prussia. In the meantime he had traveled again, visiting Germany, Austria, France, England again, and Italy between 1734 and 1737. (Apocryphal story #1: Everywhere he went, people kept assuming he was from Denmark, and he always had to tell them, “Never believe it. I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.”) Like Beethoven and Smetana, Roman suffered the most dreadful fate for a composer of losing his hearing. (Apocryphal story #2: It was a sorry sight to behold him repeatedly begging his colleagues, “Friends, countrymen, give Roman your ears!”) In 1745 he retired from the royal chapel and took up translating sacred texts and European theoretical treatises into Swedish. The Scarlatti stamp, as I mentioned, is Irish, but the Roman, it goes without saying, is Swedish.
Czech composer Jakub Jan Ryba (26 October 1765 – 8 April 1815) studied in Prague from the age of 15, longing to be a great composer. His father, a schoolteacher, insisted that Jakub take up that profession, which Ryba did for much of his life. His most famous work, still regularly performed in season in his homeland, is the Czech Christmas Mass of 1796. Frustrated and discouraged, he walked into a forest and took his own life with a razor.
Dimitrie Cantemir (1673 – 21 August 1723) is of greater historic importance as a soldier and statesman (and, let’s face it, that’s why he has five stamps), but he also possessed a brilliant creative mind as a prolific, if occasionally factually faulty, historian and also a composer. An astonishing linguist conversant with eleven languages, he was a scholar of “Oriental” studies, and his History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire was used as a resource by Gibbon. Cantemir’s elderly father Constantin was illiterate, but saw to it that his sons were well educated. As a youth, Dimitrie was an envoy (sometimes a hostage) in the palace at Constantinople, learning Turkish language, history, and music and actually composing in the Turkish manner. At first he fought, with distinction, on the field on behalf of the Ottomans but, anticipating the empire’s decline, he aligned Moldavia with the Russians and joined Peter the Great’s war against the Turks. After a defeat in 1711, Cantemir was forced into exile in Russia, where he was created a prince and lived on an estate until his death at age 49. (On the day he died he received word that he had been named a prince by the Holy Roman Emperor.) Some of Cantemir’s forty or so original musical works can be found on recordings, including one of Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI albums. In addition, Cantemir carefully preserved and published some 350 traditional instrumental pieces in a volume presented to the Sultan in 1703 or 1704, following which he prepared a European edition. Cantemir’s children were also significant in Russian history, his son Antioch (1708-1744), a friend of Voltaire and Montesquieu, becoming an influential poet. Besides the stamps, Dimitrie Cantemir’s image appears on the Transnistrian 100 ruble banknote.
Another very important person in Russian history was the ethnic German architect Konstantin Andreyevich Thon (or Ton; October 26, 1794 – January 25, 1881). Born in St. Petersburg, Thon was one of three brothers who became architects. Konstantin was Tsar Nicholas I’s official architect. He is honored personally on a Russian stamp of 1994 that shows one of his finest creations, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which has a checkered history, to say the least. It was conceived in 1830 but not completed for half a century. In 1882, one year after its completion, the church was the scene of the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Soviet Government, foreshadowing the Taliban, demolished the cathedral along with many other Thon churches (he built dozens) in St. Petersburg and elsewhere. In 1990, the cathedral was replaced with as faithful a replica as could be managed in a design by Aleksey Denisov. A Thon structure that survived the onslaught, the Grand Kremlin Palace, had shown up on at least three earlier Soviet stamps. Thon was also responsible for the Kremlin Armory (1844-51) and two railway stations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (1849-51). We’ll come back to Russia in a moment.
Born on Corfu to a family of the Venetian nobility, composer Nikolaos Mantzaros ( = Niccoló Calichiopoulo Manzaro, 26 October 1795 – 12 April 1872) gave a concert of his works, three arias and a one-act comedy, when he was 20. He wrote the first concert aria set to a Greek text in 1827. His output also includes music for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, with three Latin masses and one based on traditional Orthodox chant, music for band and for piano, but the piece for which he is most remembered is the Hymn to Liberty, written in 1828, which became the Greek national anthem in 1865. On the stamp he is paired with the author of the text, Dionysios Solomos. (Mantzaros is on the right.) He was director of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu for the last thirty years of his life.
A military man who devoted his art to condemning the wastefulness of war, Vasily Vereshchagin (October 26, 1842 – April 13, 1904) was sent to the Alexander Cadet Corps at the age of 8 and passed from there to the Sea Cadet Corps, going to sea at 16 on a journey to Denmark, France, and Egypt. He was graduated first in his class, but was more interested in painting. Just two years later he was awarded a medal from the St Petersburg Academy, and the year after that, 1864, he went to Paris to study under Jean-Léon Gérôme. Resuming his military career in 1867, he took part in the Russian conquest of Turkestan and was decorated for bravery, but in 1871, Vereshchagin returned to his art and established a studio in Munich. His reputation by this time was such that he could hold a solo exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1873 and another in St Petersburg in 1874. But Vereshchagin’s work, uncompromising in its candor, met with strong resistance from official quarters. His painting The Apotheosis of War (1871), a depiction of a mountain of skulls bearing a dedication “to all conquerors, past, present and to come,” was prohibited from the St Petersburg show. Years later, when it was shown in Germany and Austria, German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and the Austrian war minister forbade their soldiers from seeing it. In the meantime, the intellectually and physically inexhaustible Vereshchagin undertook a two-year tour of the Himalayas, India, and Tibet. He was in Paris again in late 1876 but donned his uniform once more with the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. This time he was critically wounded and lost a brother. One of the actions in which he took part, the Siege of Plevna, he later remembered in its aftermath on canvas (1881). Later, more of his pictures stirred controversy, especially Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English (c1884), in which sepoys were shown being executed by cannon. The English complained that they didn’t do that sort of thing any more. Vereshchagin wrote: “I loved the sun all my life, and wanted to paint sunshine. When I happened to see warfare and say what I thought about it, I rejoiced that I would be able to devote myself to the sun once again. But the fury of war continued to pursue me.” His work was by no means exclusively military—a trip to Syria and Palestine in 1884 inspired a series of pieces based on New Testament stories, and the stamps show that he created other non-bellicose work. Easily recognizable at upper left is the Taj Mahal in Agra (c1874-76), and on the souvenir sheet below is Cape Fiolent near Sevastopol (1897). Another example of his pacific production is Children of the Solonov Tribe (1870, not on a stamp). The other painting on the 1992 strip shows one of the artist’s numerous evocations of the Napoleonic Wars, Let Us Pass! (c1887-95). The image of the artist himself is derived from a photograph. But we are not through with Vereshchagin’s story. He settled in Moscow in 1893 but saw more action in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Boxer Rebellion in China five years later. His travels broadened in the years 1901-03 to the Philippines, the United States and Cuba, and Japan. Wikipedia takes up the tale: “During the Russo-Japanese War, he was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to join him aboard Makarov’s flagship, Petropavlovsk. On April 13, 1904, Petropavlovsk struck two mines while returning to Port Arthur and sank, taking with it most of the crew, including both Admiral Makarov and Vereshchagin. Vereshchagin’s last work, a picture of a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, was recovered almost undamaged.” A town, Vereshchagino, in Perm Krai and a minor planet discovered in 1978, 3410 Vereshchagin, are named for him. A remarkable life, a remarkable man.
Serbian author Miloš Crnjanski (26 October 1893 – 30 November 1977) was infused from his earliest years with the notions of love of country. As a nationalist he was arrested in a general roundup following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand but rather than serving a jail term was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight the Russians in Galicia. He was wounded in 1915 and seems to have been a long time recuperating in a Vienna hospital. Just before the war ended he was assigned to the Italian front. With the peace he remained in Vienna to study art history and philosophy, though he turned to literature, producing the poetry volume Lyrics of Ithaca in 1918 and becoming with his disillusioned reflections on the war a kind of Serbian Rupert Brooke. In his many remaining years he wrote more poetry, some nine novels (one of them now lost), eight plays (half of them lost; I’m intrigued by one called Nikola Tesla), four books of travel, and other pieces. He also served as a diplomat, acting as Yugoslavia’s cultural attaché in Berlin, Rome, and Lisbon from 1928.
We remain in Eastern Europe for one more artist, although the Romanian painter M. H. Maxy (October 26, 1895 – July 19, 1971) was of German-Jewish descent. He was born Max Herman in Brăila and from age seven, following his mother’s early death, grew up in Bucharest. He, too, fought in World War I and carried over the experience into his subsequent work. Indeed, his first exhibit, shared with two colleagues, held in Iași in 1918, was centered on scenes from the war. It was at this time that he started using the name Maxy. In the early 1920s he studied and exhibited in Berlin and became a member of the expressionist November Group. As the Second World War neared, Maxy worked as a designer for and then director of the Jewish theater in Bucharest. With anti-semitic laws in effect, he taught students who had been prohibited from attending Romanian public schools at the private Jewish School of Arts. After the war he was named director of the National Museum of Art of Romania and continued his work as a teacher. The stamp from 2004 shows Maxy’s 1924 portrait of poet Tristan Tzara.
And we come home to America for today’s last subject, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972). She added the letter “i” to her original name Mahala some time after 1930. Born in New Orleans, she learned about such artists as Bessie Smith from her cousin’s record collection. She moved to Chicago at 16 and began singing with the Johnson Gospel Singers. Her meeting in 1929 with composer Thomas A. Dorsey would lead to a long collaboration. Jackson married in 1936 but divorced just five years later, partly because her husband, a well-educated graduate of Fisk University and Tuskegee, had been so insistent about her singing secular music. She never did. Jackson was the first gospel singer to appear at Carnegie Hall (1950) and the lead at the first gospel music participation at the Newport Jazz Festival (1957). Well before this she had come to be regarded as the world’s greatest gospel singer, “The Queen of Gospel”. Her first European tour took place in 1952, and her last public concert was given there (in Germany) in 1971. In between, she sang at the March on Washington and at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.