Deep covers

One big difference between books and sheet music: nowadays, any reasonably experienced musician can identify the publisher of a piece of sheet music from about twenty feet away. The pale-green-plus-giant-composer-name design of Peters; the yellowish-beige-sans-serif-small-caps of G. Schirmer; the flush-right-lower-case-bold-black-and-white of Universal Edition, etc., etc. Even a Dover score, with its clip-art-plus-white-text aesthetic, can usually be spotted on a podium stand from the second balcony.

Which is why I still love hunting down antique scores. As my lovely wife will confirm with a roll of her eyes, I love old stuff, and that includes sheet music. Popular sheet music, of course, is extremely collectible on account of eye-catching covers, but there was a time when classical wasn’t that far behind. Here’s five favorites I pulled from my shelves.

Monteverdi/Krenek: L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Universal Edition, 1937). Pure neo-classicism, by way of Napoleonic archeological surveys. I picked this up at a Boston Conservatory library sale; from the library of Ingrid Kahrstedt Brainard, the early dance historian, which is pretty cool.

Clementi/Tausig: Gradus ad Parnassum, ed. Gustav Damm (Steingräber-Verlag, n.d.). No date, but I’m guessing sometime before absinthe became illegal. I can imagine Alma Mahler wallpapering her bathroom with that pattern.

Joseph Marx: Marienlied (Universal Edition, 1925). The lithograph is by Alfred Keller. I don’t know what Rubenesque nudes holding up a proscenium arch in front of craggy landscape has to do with the song, and I don’t care.

Penderecki: Quartetto per archi (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1963). A classic piece of abstract expressionism from the Polish state music publisher, who opted for these sorts of far-out covers quite a bit. Purchased at a used-book sale in Chicago many years ago—the previous owner was composer Alan Stout, which I initially thought to be an amazing coincidence, until I realized that there were probably at most a couple dozen copies of this in all of Chicago.

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Universal Edition, 1924 [reprint]). This is such a fantastic cover that it’s criminal there’s no artist credit. (And I looked—it does seem to be the same artist who did the cover for UE’s edition of Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf). It’s been years and years since I saw an album cover or movie poster that good. In some ways (not many, but some), the old days were better.


  1. You should probably be alerted that we just got a metric fuckton of pre-1900 music at the library. We can’t use most of it since it’s turning into dust but if you want to look through I’m sure the librarians would be more than happy to.Also, real absinthe is <>totally<> legal again. So we’ll probably be seeing more things like the cover to < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Complete Scriabin Sonatas<>.

  2. I was going to say, about the absinthe. Take a look at St. George Distillery, which is now distilling an absinthe. If you’re in the Bay area, check with me for a sample.

  3. 1) The Janacek cover *does* impart something of the opera’s warmth and simplicity. I remember playing the opera in my dorm room (the old Supraphon Gregor recording, still my favorite of it, with the MacKerras alongside) and people who had no interest in classical kept stopping in and asking what it was. My thesis in illustration ended up being designing covers for classical LP’s — in 1984, unfortunately, just as CDs were coming in. 2) Apropos covers/posters, my first theatre poster since my days at the Sugan theatre is going up soon, I designed the poster for the Huntington’s upcoming production of “She Loves Me” — the difficulty was, being based on a Lubitsch film, it couldn’t look too American. 3) Lastly, next time you’re in town and near the BestBuy side of Newbury Street, check out Orpheus Collectibles (corner of Mass. and Comm. avenues, across the street from the Eliot Hotel). They have scads of collectible scores as well as the best selection of used classical CD’s — but in Boston these days, that isn’t saying much.

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