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You Can Tell the Music By Its Cover -1

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES Oct, 2003

At a very early age, I began to realize how beautiful some of my LP jackets were. One that particularly impressed me were the drawings on the London recording of faces from Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suites"; and I dearly wish I could find just that piece of cardboard again to frame it and enjoy it as a work of art.

I have several such covers, some of the bulky 78 rpm sets, some from LP sets, my favorite being the colorful one from the London "Tale of the Tsar Saltan" in which a very colorful be-turbaned gentleman is smiling out at you. Of one particular artist who designed covers mostly for Columbia 78s and LPs I will have much to say later in this mini-series. Here I wish only to talk of the philosophy of artwork to attract purchasers of recorded music.

Let us start with a single company that has chosen to use, with a few exceptions, works of art on all of their covers. The Naxos label has managed to make profits as larger labels are losing money consistently each year in their classical lines, most because Naxos charges about half the price as do their rivals and pay their artists up front so they can plough the profits back into the product.

To get us started, I have more or less randomly pulled out three samples of CDs, all containing music by Sir Arthur Bliss. As with all Naxos covers, we have a white page with the composer's name and the selections being offered along with the players and conductor in clear print. Taking up the bottom two-thirds of the page are the pictures.

For the set in which his ballet, "Miracle in the Gorbals" is featured, we have a photograph taken during an actual performance. For the set that features his "A Colour Symphony," we have a striking copy of "Four Color Symphony" by George Dannatt, a most appropriate choice. Not only does it catch the eye but gives us in visual terms what the music will try to convey to the ear. On the cover for his "Cello Concerto," we have Dannatt's "Lunar Plains," a sphere dominating some rectangular forms. Obviously this conveys little or nothing about the music but sets a modern and rather restful mood. Three approaches to attracting one's attention and still doing some justice to the music being purchased.

From the Naxos series called "American Classics," I have chosen four CDs devoted to the piano music of Edward MacDowell. Here the artwork is, of course, by American painters but they bear no clear relation to the music other than a general one of time and place. So the four volumes feature respectively "Farmyard" by Charles Lanman, "Moonlit Landscape," "Landscape With a Lake," and "Diana in the Chase," the last three by Washington Allston.

For a 14-album collection of Grieg's piano music, the art people needed to go no further than The National Gallery in Oslo, Norway to find such fetching pictures as "View from Gvarv in Telemark" by Erik Wereskiold and "Decaying Forest" by August Cappelen.

An interesting variation was used for the 10-album set of music by Johann Strauss, Jr. Each cover has the same faint background of people dressed as in the 1850s or so that takes up the entire cover, over which is superimposed in an oval frame a photograph of the composer himself at one point or another in his life. Fortunately, there were at least 10 photos in the Arhiv fur Kunst and Geschichte in which they were found for use by the cover designers.

Clever planning is needed for a series of (say) the piano sonatas of Haydn and a companion series of his string quartets. Both call for appropriate art but the designers wish to keep theform somewhat different for each series. So the Haydn sonatas all have covers depicting places with which the composer was familiar ("Metternich Palace beside the Vienna racing track" (anon.) and "The Lobkowitz Palace" by Fischer von Erlach) while the quartets are concerned with the people of the time and place ("Count von Harrach, Master Falconer and Lord Lieutenant of Austria" by Martin Meytens II and "Leopold II" [anon.]). And since Naxos also has a series of Haydn symphonies, we are treated to some lovely landscapes.

But when it comes to original art for this purpose, things get very interesting, as you will see next month.

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