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You Can See the Music By Its Cover - Part 3

ART TIMES Dec 2003

The Steinweiss record covers I described last issue are all without human figures. When humans are depicted, the artist has many imaginative ways to represent them. Take the cover for the "Piano Music of Liszt" on a 1948 Columbia slip cover. The sole figure is dressed in traditional Hungarian costume, seated on the left side of the cover at a table, holding up and looking at a sheet of piano music as he smokes a long pipe. The fringe of his jacket is made of piano keys, while his head, sporting a long moustache and a hat with a long feather is completely detached from the body.

The cover for his 1944 "Porgy and Bess: a Symphonic Picture" shows stylized characters from the opera in the upper half of the picture while the bottom is taken up by even more stylized black faces and hands, in gospel-singing poses, coming out of white garments, all forming a sort of downstage framing for the main players. Above are a kneeling Bess in yellow holding a reclining Porgy in reddish brown and yellow, while a triumphant Sportin’ Life in a reddish brown suit and yellow hat commands stage center with both arms raised. On the right, to balance the humans, is a small goat hitched to a cart. Along the back, black one-dimensional tenement facades represent Catfish Row.

I never particularly liked the 1960 cover for Strauss’ "Ein Heldenleben" which Steinweiss did for Everest. It is nothing more than a black and gray drawing of a knight in armor. Where the face should be, we see a box with the face (it might be a photo) of the composer. The message is clear: Strauss is the hero of his own tone poem. Now while the cover certainly should convey this concept, again I feel Steinweiss’ solution is awkward and does not work. In fact, I find most of his covers that include photographs to be among his less inspired ones.

The cover for a 1954 Decca collection of Bing Crosby songs shows the singer sitting on a stool with his feet up on a rung. A golf club leans against his right knee while on our right a tiny picture of a race horse balances it. From the upper left, we see a microphone clearly marked "Decca," towards which Bing is turned. The gimmick here is that there is no head whatsoever between the hat and the shirt collar, so that Bing’s pipe is simply suspended in the middle. Very humorous, very eye-catching, and it captures the spirit of the performer to a tee. (Pun not intended at first, but now it is.)

One of the more imaginative covers is that for the "Candid Microphone" (direct ancestor of "Candid Camera") on which the left third of the picture is taken up with a microphone of the period — a perforated cylinder — the bottom third of which is wearing a black jacket and bowtie, the middle having four horizontal arcs to represent a smiling mouth, nose and eyes, and a round black hat on the top. What better way to show how Allen Funt was hidden in the microphone? Or was it the other way around? Steinweiss has it both ways at once!

Many of his covers use only hands. "La Conga" (1940) shows only two black hands at the top beating a large bongo that takes up the entire middle of the frame. "Boogie Woogie" (1942) shows one black and one white hand over a tiny grand piano. (Several artists were featured in this program.) "At the Piano" (1942) shows two pink hands facing to the left side of the cover which is a vertical keyboard. Brahms’ "Symphony No. 2" shows a white hand at the bottom holding a pen that points diagonally upward toward the title of the album as a horizontal cigar, coming from a smoker out of the frame above the hand, curls stylized smoke vertically upward.

His most beautiful (to me) and most striking covers came in the late 1950s and 1960s in which he used abstract color combinations and designs on covers for works such as Granados’ "Danzas Espanoles" (1958), Brahms’ "Violin Concerto" (1958), and Stravinski’s "Concerto for Piano and Winds" (1961). Could I but find those LPs, I would certainly frame them straight away.

But how unrewarding it is to try to describe in words these wonderful works of commercial art, the best of which could stand on their own next to any (what shall I say?) non-commercial work. I urge you to see the full-color plates in the book I mentioned last month: "For the Record: the Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss, Inventor of the Album Cover" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2000).

Oh, and let me know if you own any of the covers I described in these last two essays.

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