Cover Stories with Paul Morris, Vol. 7

July 6th, 2014


Paul Morris is a graphic designer and writer who collects album art of the 1940’s and 1950’s. He finds his examples of influential mid-century design in the used record stores of Portland, Oregon.

This edition features Alex Steinweiss album covers from his prime period — the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

__________

     I’ve gathered together some Alex Steinweiss covers from what I consider his prime period, the late 40’s and early 50’s. These illustrations share what I’ll call a modernist European style. There are influences of Surrealism and an overall tone of irony and wry humor. The musical works are all western European. For Russian and eastern European works he often featured dancing peasants and other rural subjects.

     The first cover illustrates Strauss’s Transfiguration and Death, a good soundtrack for the Age of Anxiety. It dates from 1947. The moth is cheerful enough, but there is a starkness to the composition and the black box enclosing the word death darkens the mood.

morris-1

__________

     This Chopin cover from 1949 uses an old engraving of a piano, in negative. Other devices that recur in Steinweiss’s illustrations are the conductor’s hand with baton and the composer’s quill pen and manuscript paper.

morris-2

__________

     The Delius cover with a bird on it is one of my favorites. The references in a Steinweiss cover usually correspond to something in the music, but I haven’t found any themes about painting in these works. Probably he just liked the conceit of the painter choosing notes from his palette. Perhaps the music shown is from one of the pieces on the album, but probably not, as there’s a mistake in the middle staff, where two half-note D-flats are followed by a quarter-note D-flat. Too many beats for one measure.

morris-3

__________

     This 1947 cover for an album of 78-rpm records is striking, but I admit I don’t know what the cupid and the sword refer to. Possibly it’s the first aria on the record, one from Aida in which the heroine sings of her beloved, Radamès, who is returning from battle.

morris-4

__________

     Moving to 1951, the LP has arrived, and Steinweiss often had to somehow illustrate two disparate works on the same cover — many compositions fit easily on one side of the record. These double-title covers surely were harder to pull off successfully, and this one doesn’t really hang together, but I think it is a lot of fun. First, the Danse Macabre is given prominence. Second, there’s the negative image of the skeleton with the green violin. And there’s a lot of the Steinweiss Scrawl. If anyone can explain the rooster near the skeleton’s knee, please write in.

morris-5

__________

     This illustration for La Traviata features a French scene and a delicious purple background. The man’s hand is drawn in a familiar fashion-in numerous covers it is a conductor’s hand holding a baton, as on the Chopin cover above.

morris-6

__________

     Another hand, another piano engraving, and a big red composer’s quill pen-combined in a very lively composition. Most likely this was from the early 1950’s, though it was not printed with the more modern four-color process. This uses four ink colors-red, yellow/chartreuse, blue-gray, and black.

morris-7

__________

     Beethoven evidently struck a chord with Steinweiss; his illustrations are memorable. This relatively simple illustration refers to the possibly mythical story in which Beethoven dedicated his symphony to Napoleon, then changed his mind when the French ruler named himself emperor. The inscription “Sinfonia Eroica per festeggiare il sovvenire di un Grand Uomo” means “Heroic symphony, [composed] to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

      The second cover for the Third Symphony again uses the Napoleonic hat, along with the emperor’s crown.

morris-8

morris-9

__________

     The Beethoven Fifth cover is from 1950. The composer’s face is shown in positive and negative; these images are flanked by a lady holding out a flower and a skeleton, again in reverse. I have noticed that many album designers who tackle a fifth symphony make use of a large numeral “5.” I think this is because the 5 fills the square space of an album cover in a balanced, satisfying way. Much nicer than a large 2 or 7.

     Why the skeleton and the lady with the parasol? My best guess is that Beethoven’s music encompasses the extremes of human emotion and experience.

morris-10

__________

     Also from 1950 is this somewhat less successful cover for Finlandia and some works by Rachmaninoff. The background is a photo of driftwood and a fishing net. To my eye, the colors are a bit overripe.

morris-11

__________

     The illustration here is for the first piece on this record, the ballet Les Sylphides, based on music by Chopin. Here Steinweiss chose a soft, tender mood to depict the dancers. The Villa-Lobos piece doesn’t get its own picture.

morris-12

__________

     Tchaikovsky in a mask? This delightful and odd cover shows how logical it is to arrange things in a diagonal composition, from upper left to lower right. It was released in 1950. I believe the mask refers to the composer’s statement that his symphony had a programme, or narrative, but that he would not reveal it. At this time Tchaikovsky’s sexuality was not commonly discussed in liner notes, but today it’s hard not to read the image as a closeted gay man. The notes describe the Pathétique as “a masterpiece of strong emotions, of magnificent colors which are sometimes somber, sometimes flaming.”

morris-13

__________

     The last example of the European Steinweiss is Wagner, who brings out our artist’s dark side. The color is an ominous red, and the background bristles with knives, swords, and spears. The picture at the upper right is Wotan saying farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. The opera Rienzi, on the other side of the record, does involve war and coups in medieval Italy, but such a profusion of arms is hard to explain. He must have found a trove of old engravings of weapons and decided he couldn’t resist them.

morris-14

__________

Next time: I confess my fascination with records on the floor.

In Volume 1 of “Cover Stories,” Paul shared his collection of covers by Alex Steinweiss, known as the father of the record album cover, and for many years in charge of Columbia Records’ art department.

Volume 2 focused on Columbia covers

Volume 3 featured jazz illustrations from the early years of the record album

Volume 4 revisited the 1950’s with images of fans holding and enjoying their albums

Volume 5 explored the work of Alex Steinweiss when he used the pseudonym “Piedra Blanca”

Volume 6 featured teenagers of the 1950’s enjoying their music

Share this:

2 comments on “Cover Stories with Paul Morris, Vol. 7”

  1. I’m not sure if this blog is still active, but it’s giving me a lot of pleasure. Thanks so much for posting all this. I love Steinweiss, and album covers from those days are a lot of fun to look at!
    A couple of corrections: As indicated by the arrows on the cover (clever!), the title of the work on the first album photo is “Death and Transfiguration” by Strauss. Also the middle system on the cover of the Delius is actually correct, there are only 4 beats. In typical piano-reduction notation, the two quarter notes would be played during the time of the second half note.

    The Beethoven “Eroica” covers are two of my favorites. The first was from a 1941 recording and the second was a 1949 recording on tape (as opposed to shellac in 1941) and is a clear riff on the earlier cover – now with bullet holes through both the crown of royalty and the Napoleonic hat!

    As an aside, Steinweiss also designed a cover to the 5th Symphony from 1941 (Bruno Walter, Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York), which appears stylistically to be a partner for the photo you have posted. That cover had the Morse code for “V” [for victory] which is dot-dot-dot-dash, mimicking the famous rhythm in the opening of the symphony. For that reason, and the obvious musical trajectory of the work, it was played very often during WWII to bolster morale. I’m not entirely sure but I expect the Morse code association with the work preceded Steinweiss’s use on this cover.

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo by Mel Levine/pinelife, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Lady Day and Prez” by Henry Wolstat

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Publisher’s Notes

photo by Rhonda Dorsett
A very brief three-dot update…Where I’ve been, and an update on what is coming up on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

Photographer uncredited, but the photo was almost certainly taken by Chuck Stewart. Published by ABC/Impulse! Records.. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“And I’m Not Even Here” – a poem by Connie Johnson

Click here to read more poetry published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Click here to read more interviews published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

Three poets and Sketches of Spain

Interview

IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

Review

Jason Innocent, on “3”, Abdullah Ibrahim’s latest album... Album reviews are rarely published on Jerry Jazz Musician, but Jason Innocent’s experience with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s new recording captures the essence of this artist’s creative brilliance.

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #171

Dick Cavett/via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to being one of the greatest musicians of his generation, this Ohio native was an activist, leading “Jazz and People’s Movement,” a group formed in the late 1960’s who “adopted the tactic of interrupting tapings and broadcasts of television and radio programs (i.e. the shows of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett [pictured] and Merv Griffin) in protest of the small number of Black musicians employed by networks and recording studios.” Who was he?

Click here to visit the Jazz History Quiz archive

Community

photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive