Covering the Classics | Newberry

Covering the Classics

Columbia had a cartoony and colorful picture of the prince and his wife under a canopy, but RCA Victor nailed it with a cartoon showing the hero riding on a magic carpet not made of fabric but of a single 78 rpm disc. This image is still admired by those who study advertising graphics, as it shouts not only that this is a fantasy tale from the exotic East, but also a record. It all fit, since, as I hear tell, Rimsky-Korsakov did not mean any part of his Scheherazade to be specifically associated with any story from the Arabian Nights.

We are still working through this massive collection of LPs which arrived. One thing the collector liked was dear old Scheherazade. He seems to have had every version ever put on vinyl, and I haven’t begun on the 78s so far. Remind me to spell out, someday, my theory of how to tell the age of a record collector by the classic composer most obvious in the load, but there was an era when EVERY record label seemed to want to bring out a Scheherazade. (Think I’m joking? You should have seen my expression when I pulled out “Walt Disney presents Scheherazade”.)

This collector did not necessarily keep the jacket of all these records, apparently feeling that if something had to go to make room, the cardboard was expendable. So I don’t get to see EVERY different cover design for this particular piece of music, but I see enough to get the general theme: minarets, belly dancers, and/or flying carpets will set the tone. (It depends on current graphic fashion and the performer, of course: Leonard Bernstein’s presentation of the piece simply has lettering and a picture of the conductor.)

Has anybody done a study of this sort of thing and, if so, why don’t we have a great big coffee table book of the results? The Grand Canyon Suite, of which he has half a dozen copies so far, is pretty easy to design; you just put up a gorgeous landscape photo. (Although the Leonard Bernstein version just has lettering and a photo of…never mind. Maybe it was the company’s art style.) But The New World Symphony (another half dozen, at least) shows an interesting division: some companies saw The New World as a vast, rural landscape while others felt a cityscape, with big building and/or a mighty bridge, was more likely to shout “New World”. (Dvorak wrote this in Iowa, if you’ve forgotten. Oh, and the Herbert von Karajan version just has big letters and much larger picture of the conductor than Bernstein had on HIS album covers.)

It isn’t just the classics, of course. There’s musical comedy: not only will you have completely different versions for the Broadway and the Hollywood edition, but if the show was any kind of hit, you have all kinds of cover versions: Selections From My Fair Lady, Hits From My Fair Lady, or just My Fair Lady, featuring whatever singers the company could pull together. These jackets had no rights to photos of Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn, and resorted instead to any model who could look like a lady, in historic garb or just something that looked good. Most of these attempts are only fair.

But those shows haven’t been around nearly long enough for a wide variety. And a LOT of opera albums cop out with a big picture of the leading singer. For a really interesting array of images, something instrumental that’s been around for a while is best. Of course it was my interest in the history of graphic interpretation of music that led my eyes to all these different editions of Gaite Parisienne, which includes surely the most famous of all can-can melodies. (No, NOT Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Der-Ay. The other one.)

Now, a lot of companies played it safe by using one or another of Toulouse Lautrec’s classic images from the music halls. Others went photographic, but with a vast diversion in how to depict a can can dancer and attract the eye but not the law. This version, from Capitol, shows the laughing faces of the dancers while Deutsche Gramaphon has gone for a row of high button shoes. Mercury has a can can dancer cheerfully en pointe, while London shows an apparently carefree dancer exposing one leg but at a cautious angle. My parents had the RCA Victor version, as nice a heels and hose shot as one could wish, although there was an alternate cover with three dancers throwing skirts (and caution) to the wind. As for the young lady on the Columbia version, I hope her mother never saw that photo.

There are more, but you can see how this sort of thing could go on forever. We haven’t even touched Peter and the Wolf, or all the different covers for Bach, which often involved stained glass…what? Oh, the Leonard Bernstein Gaite Parisienne? Dancing girls with hiked up skirts and velvet chokers. Even Leonard knew when he couldn’t compete.

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