An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Three movie makers and two tenors are joined today by the first published African-American female poet, a Russian painter, a Czech composer, an Urdu poet, a Greek actor, and an Uzbek chess Grandmaster. We also have a couple of anniversaries to announce.
Two of the filmmakers were born in Austria and active in America, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, and the third is Walt Disney.
The father of Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an architect, and his mother was of Jewish descent, though she had converted, and young Fritz was brought up as a Catholic. He studied civil engineering in Vienna, where he was born, before turning to art. He traveled all around the world in 1910 and took up his art studies in Paris in 1913. Lang volunteered for the Austrian army in World War I, fought on the Eastern Front, and was thrice wounded, once shell-shocked. He did a bit of acting, a bit of writing, and then found his métier in directing. Lang and his second wife Thea von Harbou co-wrote all the films he directed between 1921 and their divorce in 1933. These included the masterpieces of the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, the magnificent Die Nibelungen (1924), and, of course, Metropolis (1927), which is recalled on the German stamp of 1995. For M (1931), von Harbou did all the whistling for Peter Lorre, who lacked that particular gift. When the Nazis came to power, and despite Lang’s Jewish heritage and political unreliability (from their point of view), Lang was personally offered the directorship of UFA by Goebbels himself. Lang said he left Germany the same night, but that was a slight exaggeration. He divorced his Nazi sympathizer wife and went to Paris in 1934, then to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1939. He did a lot of fine work for Hollywood, but nothing of the caliber of his early German films. I remember coming upon a used laser disc (yes, it was a while ago) of a period piece called Moonfleet that Lang directed in 1955, produced by John Houseman, with a killer cast of Stewart Granger, George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, and Viveca Lindfors, and a music score by Miklós Rózsa. I thought, how can you go wrong? Well, it’s not horrible, but it’s no M.
Keeping like with like, we turn to Otto Preminger (5 December 1905 – 23 April 1986). He was also born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, but geographically far from Lang, in what today is Ukraine. Both parents were Jewish. When World War I erupted, the family moved west to Graz. Young Otto wanted to be an actor pretty much from the start. He became a protegé of Max Reinhardt in Vienna. Asked in 1930 to direct a film, Preminger, who had no particular liking for the genre, accepted the job and went on to direct many theater productions. Another plum fell, as it were, into his lap when he was invited to come to Hollywood. Again he accepted and helmed a romantic comedy starring Lawrence Tibbett. After a blowup with Darryl F. Zanuck, Preminger went to New York and resumed directing for the stage, also teaching for a while at the Yale School of Drama. But luck was still with him, and while Zanuck was away at war, his temporary replacement chose Preminger for the hit Laura (1944). His career thereafter had its ups and downs, Anatomy of a Murder (1959) being my choice for highlight. Preminger also acted from time to time, notably in Stalag 17 (1953) and directed the premiere of an opera by Gottfried von Einem with Phyllis Curtin and films of Carmen Jones (after Bizet, 1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959). While the Lang stamp is from Germany, Preminger’s is Austrian.
There are literally hundreds of Disney stamps from all over the world, most of them showing the ubiquitous cartoon characters and scenes from the famous animated films. For that reason, I’ve decided to limit today’s stamp offerings to those that show Walt Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) himself…well, with one exception, only because this very year the USPS issued a set of stamps depicting Disney villains. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cruella de Vil.
A few interesting facts about José Carreras, who turns 71 today: the original Catalan version of his name is Josep (pron. zhu-ZEP); he made his stage debut as a boy soprano at the age of 11 in Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show; he studied chemistry at the University of Barcelona; Montserrat Caballé was a great advocate in his early career. To the relief of opera lovers around the world, he recovered from what was thought likely to have been a terminal case of leukemia and founded the José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation in 1988. The Austrian stamp was issued in 2004 to commemorate his thirty-year association with the Vienna Staatsoper.
Another tenor born on December 5th was Yoshie Fujiwara (1898 – March 22, 1976). Born in Osaka to a geisha mother and a Scottish father, Neil B. Reid, he was adopted by Tokuzaburō Fujiwara. Reid did not meet his son until Yoshie was eleven, whereupon Reid paid for the boy’s schooling. Fujiwara studied voice in Milan. After further travel and performances in London and the United States, he founded the first Japanese opera company, the Fujiwara Opera, in 1934.
She has no US stamp yet, but poet Phillis Wheatley, who died on this date in 1784, can be found on one from Senegal, where she was likely born (or perhaps in Gambia) around the year 1753. While still a small child, she was sold by a local chief to a slave trader and had the relatively good fortune to be purchased by a kindly family, the Wheatleys, in Boston. They gave her the name Phillis, taken from the ship that had transported her. She was given a level of education that was unusual for girls and unheard of for slaves. Phillis could read Greek and Latin by age 12 and wrote her first poem at 14. The Wheatleys manumitted her in 1773 and took her to London, where her first volume of poetry was published. Two years later, a poem addressed “To His Excellency, George Washington” led to a meeting with that gentleman in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March of 1776. Thomas Paine printed the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette. After the deaths of the Wheatleys in 1774 and 1778, Phillis married John Peters, but found little happiness as both their infants died, and Peters went into debtors’ prison. Wheatley had to resort to manual labor, something she had never known, and died at the age of 31.
Russian Impressionist painter Konstantin Korovin (5 December [O.S. 23 November] 1861 – 11 September 1939) was born in Moscow. He was of peasant origins, but his grandfather had founded a business, and his father had acquired a university degree. At the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Korovin studied under Vasily Perov and Alexei Savrasov and alongside Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, with whom he formed lifelong friendships. After visiting Paris and Spain in 1885, Korovin envied the freedom of the Impressionist school that was denied him in Russia. He returned and designed sets for opera. On a later visit to Spain he painted On the Balcony, Spanish Women Leonora and Ampara (1888-89), which appears on a stamp from Sierra Leone issued just this year. He was also inspired by the northern landscapes, as in this moody piece from 1894-95, Hammerfest: Aurora Borealis. His design for the Central Asia pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 won him the Legion of Honor. Paris, too, would become a favorite theme in his work. During World War I his expertise was employed in the matter of camouflage, and after the war he went back to stage design for opera and ballet, not only in Russia but all over the world. The newer stamp, issued for the artist’s sesquicentennial, shows Moskvoretsky Bridge (1914). This past Saturday we saw here a portrait of Feodor Chaliapin by Nikolai Kuznetsov. Korovin did one, too.
Czech composer Vítězslav Novák (5 December 1870 – 18 July 1949) was born Viktor but as a young man changed his name to Vítězslav (VEET-yeh-slahf) to reflect his Czech ethnicity. He studied with Dvořák, but soon adopted more “modernist” tendencies that paralleled Impressionism. He was deeply influenced by Richard Strauss after the Prague première of Salome. During both World Wars Novák wrote large-scale patriotic works, operatic and symphonic, on Czech historical themes.
Born Shabbir Hasan Khan in British India, Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi (5 December 1894 – 22 February 1982) was a prolific writer of many thousands of verses. His antecedents had been men of letters for generations. In youth he studied Arabic, Persian, and English at home before attending St Peter’s College in Agra and founding a magazine that favored independence from the Raj. From this he earned the sobriquet Shayar-e-Inquilab (poet of revolution). Malihabadi was highly regarded by Nehru, who wished him to remain in India as a force against the suppression of Urdu in favor of Hindi, but Nehru could not dissuade him from migrating to Pakistan in 1958. Malihabadi’s autobiography is much admired.
One of the most popular of 20th-century Greek actors was Nikos Kourkoulos (December 5, 1934 – January 30, 2007), who made his stage debut in Dumas’s La dame aux camélias in 1958. His film work began at around the same time and continued into the early 1980s. He preferred the more challenging dramas among both the classics and the moderns. With Melina Mercouri, he appeared on Broadway in Illya Darling (Never on Sunday), a production that was nominated for a Tony in 1967.
Uzbek Grandmaster Rustam Kasimdzhanov (born in Tashkent on 5 December 1979) won the Asian Chess Championship in 1998 and finished well in several more competitions before winning the World Championship in a closely fought tie-breaker in 2004. The title went to Bulgarian Grandmaster Veselin Topalov the next year.
The Berlioz Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5, was written to remember those who fell in the Revolution of July 1830 and was first heard on 5 December 1837 at the Dôme des Invalides in Paris. Berlioz made revisions in 1852 and 1867. The Monegasque stamp marks the sesquicentennial of the première. (I wonder whether Carreras has ever sung the Sanctus.)
Coincidentally, tomorrow is the anniversary of the first performance of another Berlioz masterpiece, The Damnation of Faust, and Monaco issued a gorgeous set of nine (!) related stamps, which I’ll post then along with our birthday tributes.
Given the frequency with which their poetry was set to music by the great Russian composers, it greatly surprises me to find no stamps for neither Fyodor Tyutchev (December 5 [O.S. November 23] 1803 – July 27 [O.S. July 15] 1873) nor Afanasy Fet (5 December [O.S. 23 November] 1820 – 3 December [O.S. 21 November] 1892). Today’s stampless also include British poet Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), Hungarian-English film director Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988), of “Powell and Pressburger”, and American novelists Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) and Calvin Trillin (1935). From classical music, we salute Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman (born 5 December 1956) and Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov (1960), who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
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.