Thursday, August 6, 2015

Alex Steinweiss' cover artwork for Columbia's "Peer Gynt"

Many moons ago, I was browsing in a Goodwill store here in York when I came across a gorgeous Columbia Masterworks album, circa the early to mid 1940s.

The album, labeled MX-180, is a performance of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt"1 by Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic.

The cover artwork was done by Alex Steinweiss (1917-2011), who is considered to be the inventor of the artistic album cover.

(I am stymied by the fact that my scanner isn't large enough for me to scan the entire album cover. A cropped version of the illustration is featured below. There are other places you can view the entire cover, including the great Collecting Record Covers blog.2)

This excerpt from Steinweiss' obituary in The New York Times explains how he brought artistry to record albums when there was no notion of images being used to label music:
"The record cover was a blank slate in 1939, when Mr. Steinweiss was hired to design advertisements for Columbia Records. Most albums were unadorned, and on those occasions when art was used, it was not original. (Albums then were booklike packages containing multiple 78 r.p.m. discs.)

"'The way records were sold was ridiculous,' Mr. Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview. 'The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.' Despite concern about the added costs, he was given the approval to come up with original cover designs."

Steinweiss designed record covers from 1939 until the early 1970s. During that time, he was at the forefront of inventing the "language" of album design. He also did design work for liquor bottles, posters, magazines, pamphlets, book covers and TV show titles, according to Wikipedia.

The Remington Site takes a deeper look at the influential work by Steinweiss and other early record-album designers. It details, among other things, how Steinweiss was involved with the album-packaging transition required for the move from 78s to LPs.

Steinweiss did at least one other "Peer Gynt" cover — this one for the recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It can be seen on Collecting Record Covers.

I think I like this one best, though, especially with the way the red and green pop out against the blue background. It has a nice folklore quality that befits a tale involving woodsmen, trolls and fairies.

If you're now keen on checking out more of Steinweiss' work, a great (but pricey) place to start might be 2011's Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, a 400-plus-page coffee table book by Taschen that reproduces hundreds of his album covers.

1. First there was "Per Gynt," a Norwegian fairy tale/legend in which a hunter battles trolls and performs a number of heroic acts. Henrik Ibsen based his 1876 play, Peer Gynt, on "Per Gynt" and other fairy tales recorded by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. "Peer Gynt" is the incidental music, by Grieg, to Ibsen's play.
2. The "Peer Gynt" cover is also displayed on Pinterest, where Fata Tookay has a page dedicated to Steinweiss covers.

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