Visual Harmony : A Look At Classical Music Album Covers

Back in August 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Proclamation 6716 stating the month of September to be Classical Music Month.  In celebration of this, Modern Graphic History Library looks at various illustrated album covers of classical recordings from the 1950s – 1970s.

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by Cliff Condak, Epic Records, 1959

Originally, album covers were simply paper wrappers — usually brown, but sometimes tan or green.  An art director at Columbia Music, Alex Steinweiss, changed that in 1939 or 1940 (sources vary) by adding graphic arts, photographs, and typography to the jacket cover.  At first Columbia executives were skeptical, until sales increased.  Soon every record label was adding some type of graphic design to the album.  When the LP format was released in 1948, that provided additional space for jacket creation.

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by Cliff Condak, Columbia, 1979

The use of illustration for album covers began on a regular use in the 1950s.  Columbia’s art director, S. Neil Fujita, was one of the pioneers of hiring painters and illustrators to create album artwork.

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by Robert Andrew Parker, Odyssey Records, date unknown

At the beginning of the 1950s, magazine illustration was thriving, both in fiction illustration and in advertising.  However, throughout the decade as television became more popular with the public, advertisers allocated more of their budgets to TV ads instead of magazine illustrations.  Magazine subscriptions were declining and many magazines folded while others struggled to survive the decade.  Magazine illustration jobs were becoming harder to find, so many artists began illustrating covers for albums (primarily classical and jazz) plus the growing paperback industry.

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by Cliff Condak, Columbia, 1977

Many illustrated classical music covers continued the tradition of including the composer’s image.  Sometimes photographs were juxtaposed to the illustration.

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by Robert Andrew Parker, Columbia, 1973

Other techniques were used as well.  Robert Weaver, who liked to use collage in his works, combined photographs with expressionist lines to convey the movement of the conductors.

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by Robert Weaver,  Columbia, 1977

Some album covers would let the artist depict a theme of the music or the overall mood of the piece.  For expressionist artists such as Cliff Condak, Robert Andrew Parker, and Robert Weaver, this provided many opportunities to visualize the music to the potential album buyer.

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by Cliff Condak, Odyssey Records, 1978

Happy Classical Music Month!  Let the celebration begin.

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by Cliff Condak, Columbia, 1975

Credits:

The album covers are from the Cliff Condak Collection, the Robert Andrew Parker Collection, and the Robert Weaver Collection.

Information about album cover history is from:

Novin, Guity. A History Of Record Covers.  A History of Graphic Design, November 2013.

Popova, Maria.  How Alex Steinweiss Invented The Album Cover. Brain Pickings, July 21, 2011.

Reed, Walt. The Illustrator In America, 1860-2000. Society of Illustrators, 2001.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.