An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Two 18th-century Englishmen usher in our piece for December 26th: poet Thomas Gray and painter George Romney. The well-known French painter Maurice Utrillo and the brilliant and wonderful Steve Allen receive our bows on their birthday, along with several others.
The best known work of Thomas Gray (1716 – 30 July 1771) is the beloved “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Although I know of no complete settings of that masterpiece, the first two stanzas were set by Stephen Storace, a friend of Mozart, and a section of the poem “The Curse upon Edward” (“Weave the warp, and weave the woof”) was put to music for chorus and piano by Australian composer Raymond Hanson in 1968. Extremely modest, Gray allowed only 13 of his poems to be published in his lifetime and declined the position of Poet Laureate when it was offered to him in 1757. He was a friend of Horace Walpole and enjoyed playing Scarlatti on the harpsichord.
While Gray was London-born, his younger countryman George Romney (1734 – 15 November 1802) came from the north of England. His father was a cabinet maker, and young George, besides drawing, made and played upon violins. He studied with local artists, one of whom had been a pupil of Carle Van Loo. Romney sought (and found) his fortune in London, but separated from his wife and two children in the process and only returned to live with her after some 37 years. (He did keep in contact and provide for them.) Seven years after arriving in the capital, that is, in 1769, he had a success with one of his portraits that set him on the road to becoming the most fashionable artist of his day. With his new found affluence, he was able to journey to Italy for a stay of over two years, from 1772 to 1775. In 1782 he met Emma Hart, later, as Emma Hamilton, to become the mistress of Lord Nelson, and painted her more than 60 times. One of these portraits, with Lady Hamilton in the guise of a bacchante, executed in 1785, appears on a stamp from Benin. The Soviet stamp from 1984 offers Portrait of Mrs. Greer (it’s in the Hermitage), and the Paraguayan one gives us Portrait of Miss Juliana Willoughby (c1781-83). For the last two years of his life Romney, his health undermined, was cared for by his long-neglected wife Mary. In case you were wondering, Romney is indeed a relative of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose direct ancestor Miles was the painter’s first cousin.
Montmartre was famously, of course, a haunt for artists, but Maurice Utrillo (26 December 1883 – 5 November 1955) was actually born there. He was the son of Suzanne Valadon, model to Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others and herself a fine painter. Utrillo’s father is unknown (although the Spanish artist Miguel Utrillo y Molins officially acknowledged paternity), and his youth was troubled, likely by the mental illness that plagued him all his life. Valadon turned him to painting as a sort of therapy. He loved painting street scenes, as evinced by the stamps: from France, Le Lapin agile (1936) and Versailles Gate; from Andorra, Sant Joan de Caselles; from Wallis and Futuna The Post in 1926; from Monaco, Impasse Cottin (c1910). I was unable to identify the winter scene reproduced on the Paraguayan stamp. Several Utrillos can be seen at the MFA.
The German nationalist writer and poet Ernst Moritz Arndt (26 December 1769 – 29 January 1860), on the one hand, struck a blow for freedom, but on the other, like most nationalists, was a chauvinist, notably against the French and the Poles, and fiercely anti-semitic. He struggled (in his writings) against Napoleonic tyranny (with a heavy dose of Francophobia) and in favor of German unification. (The other gentleman on the DDR stamp is the Baron Heinrich vom Stein [1757-1831], another force for unification.) Arndt was born in northern Germany, in what was then Swedish Pomerania, and at one point had to flee to mainland Sweden in order to escape the wrath of Napoleon. His poem “Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland” (1813), as set to music by Gustav Reichardt (1797-1884), became enormously popular. It’s harmless enough, except for its eighth verse, which takes another swipe at the French and speaks of eradicating foreign “Tand” ( = trash in the sense of trinkets or baubles, not people). On the plus side, Arndt in 1803 wrote a history of serfdom that directly influenced Swedish King Gustav IV Adolf to abolish the noxious institution three years later.
We turn again to painting, now to the Spaniard José Gutiérrez de la Vega (1791 – December 27, 1865), who was born in Seville to a father who was an engraver and woodcarver. He established himself in Madrid in 1831 and was kept busy with commissions until he fell out of favor around 1850, after which he essentially gave up painting. His output consisted mainly of portrait miniatures and religious works. The stamp from Cuba shows a work labeled only as “Dos Niños“. Gutiérrez de la Vega died the day after his 74th birthday.
I can find little biographical information on Armenian composer Armen Tigranian (or Dikranian; 1879 – 10 February 1950). He is best known for two national operas, Anoush, which was apparently the first opera by any composer to be put on in Armenia (1912), and Davit Bek (completed just before the composer’s death in 1950). His other works are mainly songs and romances in Armenian folk traditions; there is an Eastern Dance for orchestra and a Cantata with the, uh, tantalizing title “Fifteen Years a Soviet-Armenian.”
Flemish expressionist sculptor Jozef Cantré (1890 – 29 August 1957), who also worked in woodcuts and book illustrations, was born in Ghent. Among his works is a bust of the composer Peter Benoit. A woodcut, Mother and Child, is shown on the stamp along with a picture of the artist and another sculpture I wasn’t able to identify.
Yesterday I said how sorry I am that Rod Serling was taken from us so soon. Another huge talent whose passing affects me the same way, even though he lived 28 years longer, is the great Steve Allen (December 26, 1921 – October 30, 2000), whose stamp, as it happens, comes from the same 2009 “TV Memories” sheet as does Serling’s Twilight Zone stamp. Not only was Allen a television innovator, but a prolific author, a more prolific songwriter, a skeptic who promoted science, and, like Serling, an advocate for social justice. He was born in New York City to an Irish Catholic family (his parents were in vaudeville) and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He went to college in Tempe, Arizona (did not earn a degree) and was stateside in the army during World War II. Allen got his start in radio, and one of the things he did before anybody else was to take a microphone into the audience and ad-lib. His very first TV show was named for him—The Steve Allen Show went on the air at 11 a.m. on Christmas morning in 1950. Two and a half years later he became the host of a late-night New York program that developed into the national Tonight Show fifteen months later (September 27, 1954, which happened to be his wife Jayne Meadows’s birthday). There, too, he broke barriers by taking comedy to the people, conducting the first “man on the street” interviews and interacting with the live audience. His programs introduced many future stars to American audiences. Probably the most famous Steve Allen bit is the one where he lost control in the guise of a sports announcer. If you don’t know the one I mean, see it here. As a writer, Steve Allen put out about fifty books, as a composer, he claimed to have written more than 8,500 songs, the most famous of them being “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” (also from 1954). Once Allen accepted a challenge from Frankie Laine to write 50 songs a day for a week, sitting in a display window at Wallach’s Music City and winning the bet. As a lyricist, he added words to Ray Brown’s music for the song “The Gravy Waltz”, and the result was awarded the 1964 Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. He also wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical Sophie (about Sophie Tucker), though it turned out to be a flop. Allen also acted from time to time, playing the title role in The Benny Goodman Story (1956). One of the things Allen was proudest of, and I remember it well, was the PBS series Meeting of Minds (1977-81), in which actors portrayed historical figures discussing various topics using mostly the thinkers’ original words. It was a treasure, and so was he.
Japanese painter Kanō Naganobu (1577 – 26 December 1654) was the youngest brother of the founder of the Kanō school, Kanō Eitoku. Naganobu was active at the court at Kyoto and followed the Tokugawa shogunate when it moved to Edo (Tokyo). The stamp from 1962 shows the detail of a dancer from Flower Viewing Party.
Before settling in London, Handel spent a productive three years in Italy, toward the end of which time he composed his opera Agrippina, first given at Venice at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on this date in 1709. The stamp comes from a set from Yemen honoring the city of Munich in anticipation of the 1972 Olympics.
One of Rossini’s less familiar operas, Bianca e Faliero had its première at La Scala on December 26, 1819. The work was favorably received, with some thirty performances during its initial season, but it had fallen into obscurity by mid-century. There was a modern revival in 1986 with Katia Ricciarelli, Marilyn Horne, and Chris Merritt, and that’s available on DVD, as is a 2005 version with Maria Bayo, Daniela Barcellona, and Francesco Meli, Renato Palumbo conducting.
The ballet Don Quixote, with music by Ludwig Minkus and choreography by Marius Petipa, was first performed in the Bolshoi Theater on 26 December [O.S. 14 December] 1869. An expanded version for the Imperial Ballet appeared two years later. Then in 1900 choreographer Alexander Gorsky created a new production, which has served as the basis for most modern performances. Don Quixote served as the subject for at least two stamp issues: a 1996 set in honor of Gorsky and a 2009 sheet for the Kazakhstan National Ballet.
The first opera house in Dnipropetrovsk opened in 1931, but the current building, the Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, was inaugurated on 26 December 1974 with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In 2002 Ukraine issued a souvenir sheet of two theaters, the other being in the city of Donetsk.
No stamp for American writer Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980), but a very happy birthday to English conductor and Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers (born 26 December 1953).
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.