The Artist, E.H. Pfeiffer
Over the last three years, we have displayed many, many beautiful sheet music covers and you have listened to many wonderful old songs. These two arts, one visual and one aural, combine to make a unique and historic art form that was developed from the period of circa 1890 to 1920. Those years are what I consider to be the golden age of American popular music manuscript covers.
The art of illustration reached a peak during this period. The camera had not yet reached it's potential and of course, practical color film was still many years away. The growth of magazines and commerce created a burgeoning market for the talents of skilled artists perhaps like never will be seen again. Lithographers flourished and artists created some of the most gorgeous and colorful depiction's of everyday live and scenery. Today, many of those illustrations still adorn many a wall and are priceless collectors items.
Parlor music was still one of the main forms of entertainment. The phonograph had not yet become a practical commercial venture so if music was to be heard, it was at your own piano played by Mom, Dad or someone else in the family. A great industry grew during this period based on popular music publication. Known as "Tin Pan Alley", the American popular music industry flourished.
Hundreds of composers and publishing houses were vying for business and one way to attract buyers was to have a captivating and colorful cover that would help sell the music. Thus emerged the golden age of sheet music. This month we celebrate the fantastic visual artistry of American Popular sheet music. We will do that through the images and style of perhaps the most prolific and acclaimed artist of the period, E.H. Pfeiffer. To accompany this month's feature, we offer a new essay in our series "In Search of American Popular Song" that outlines the life and times of E.H. Pfeiffer and includes some biographical information graciously provided by his granddaughter. Be sure to read this months essay on sheet music art and E.H. Pfeiffer
Charge of the Uhlans1908
Music by: C. Bohm (Op. 212)
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
As you will see in our essay about E.H. Pfeiffer, one of his passions outside of art was horses. As a result, some of his best artwork relates to themes containing horses. His knowledge of horses and their form added a dimension of realism and action to his paintings that contained equestrian images. This cover is one that his granddaughter has pointed out to us as an example that demonstrates his skill in painting horses. Another, "Marching Through Georgia" is shown in the essay. This particular painting is from his early middle career and is one of the more striking of his works.
Though our focus this month is on the artwork, this song struck me as one of the finest works of its kind I have run across. A very bombastic and stirring march, it was fun to create and I have enjoyed listening to it over and over. Pfeiffer has done a masterful job of matching his artwork to the theme of the music and has captured the essence of the music in his painting. This to me represents the best fusion of the two art forms, painting and music, in a way that epitomizes the golden age of sheet music. I hope you enjoy this work visually and aurally as much as I have. As you listen, note the surprise (faux) ending in the middle of the song. The next theme comes rather unexpectedly and is so completely different from what has gone before that there is a startling contrast. The music of course then returns to the main theme and has a rousing repeat of the "fake" ending with a little more drama thrown in for good measure.
Hear this incredibly stirring march.
Pickin on De Ole Banjo1915
Music & Lyrics by: Henry Widmer and Frederic Watson
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
By 1915, art as well as music had begun to change. Cakewalk, Ragtime and Two Steps were popular forms of music and art had started to enter the "Art Deco" period. By simply comparing the above work (Charge of the Uhlans) to this one you can see a radical change in the style of art. The Art Deco style flourished from around 1925 to 1939 and reached its peak around 1930 - 35. Even though it had not yet gained a name in 1915 (see below), Art Deco style was emerging at this time and grew into widespread use after the War (W.W.I).
" Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Art Deco style infused the everyday world with an elegant style of cool sophistication. The main characteristics of this style are geometry and simplicity, often combined with vibrant color contrasts and simple shapes that celebrate the rise of commerce and technology. Art Deco got its name from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris, which celebrated living in the modern world."
(From "Art Deco", by Phil Fare at http://orathost.cfa.ilstu.edu/students/pcfare/deco.php )
The music that accompanies this artwork is not quite in the Art Deco period though. This song is firmly rooted in the styles that emerged around the turn of the century with Ragtime and the Missouri Rag school. The song is quite entertaining and is meant to emulate pickin' out a tune on a banjo. As such, it is original and uses a number of musical ornaments and techniques to do about as good a job as one can in imitating a banjo on a piano. If you get bored with it, be sure to skip ahead and at least listen to the ending. The composer uses an interesting technique of superimposing two other well known melodies over this song's melody, see if you can identify them. Then he ends the song with a rather silly but well known tag.
Hear this interesting song.
I Don't Know Where I'm Going, But I'm On My Way
Music & Lyrics by: George Fairman
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
Just two years later, the United States has joined the Allies in fighting the great "War to end all Wars"; WW I. As a result, much of America's fortunes and attention are focused on this great cataclysm taking place on the continent of Europe. One need only to look at the catalog of songs from this period (1917 - 1918) to see just how immersed we all were in the conflict. Song title after song title is about the War abroad as well as the home front. Art also followed the trend.
Art turned to a highly stylized patriotic theme where nearly everything featured the flag, soldiers or sweet home gals waiting for the boys who have gone to fight. This beautifully composed painting by Pfeiffer is perhaps a singularly illustrative example of the patriotic style of art during the war. The colorful flag, soldier and Naval forces in the background all combine to convey an image of strength and resolve to defeat the enemy and emerge victorious. This is one of my favorite Pfeiffer covers.
Marches have always played a prominent part in American popular music and this song is among the best and is also very typical of the genre during the first world war. A stirring tempo, jaunty melody and forceful delivery all come together to complement the same images as Pfeiffer's great painting. Rather short, but good nonetheless.
Listen to this WW I march!.
The Pullman Porters On Parade
Music by: Maurice Abrahams
Lyrics by: Ren G. May
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
Forgive me for wandering back and forth through time but now let's step back a few years to 1913 and look at a work that is steeped in older art traditions yet Pfeiffer has personally begun to bring in some Art Deco stylistic elements into his work. The color combination and geometric elements spell Art Deco. Also, notice the flag and military like theme.
The Pullman Porters had a long history of labor disputes and made a number of attempts to unionize over their history. The most memorable incident came in 1893 when a labor dispute resulted in the burning of the Pullman Company's factory in Chicago. An extra-alarm fire tore through the 220,000 square-foot administration building that was the capitol of George M. Pullman's one-time empire beginning in the 1880s, toppling its landmark clock tower and collapsing the roof.
"For all the exquisite details and amenities, the Pullman porter was the heart of the (railroad) luxury cars. They were models of first-class service. Diligent and gracious, they tended the sleeping berths, cleaned ashtrays and spittoons, shined shoes and brushed off passengers' clothes. In time the Pullman porters would become symbols of black subservience
-- smiling, nodding Uncle Toms just one notch above slavery. (They made $15 for an 80-hour work week.) But back in the days after the Civil War a lot of former slaves jumped at the chance to be porters, and before long the Pullman company was the largest employer of blacks in America. Porters were expected to follow a rigid code of behavior. Most of them put up with it because the job brought a certain amount of status, in part because they traveled around the country and in part because of Pullman's high-class patina. Early on porters were highly respected in their communities. It was not until 1928, long after George Pullman's death, that they formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, headed by A. Philip Randolph, the nation's first black labor leader."(From The Discovery Channel Online, "What was so special about Pullman's Porters?"
The elements of Pfeiffer's cover design may be symbolic of the Pullman Porters' struggles for fair pay and treatment. Musically this song is very a upbeat tune and I found it quite enjoyable. Hear "The Pullman Porters On Parade" now.
It Takes A Long Tall Brown Skin Gal (To Make A Preacher Lay His Bible Down)1917
Music by: Will E. Skidmore
Lyrics by: Marshall Walker
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
OK, back to 1917 and here is one of the few songs that did not focus on the War. This is what we would term a novelty song (see our October, 1999 feature) in that it is humorous and has some rather silly lyrics. It focuses on a serious issue but with a great deal of humor. The art work here by Pfeiffer is simply good art, neither patriotic nor Art Deco in style, we simply have a good representation of the issue being presented in the song. Though I have no where near a definitive collection of his art, I have noticed that in the ones I have seen, Pfeiffer manages to use a limited range of colors to excellent effect. Review most of the paintings featured this month and you will see that his conservative use of colors results in very pleasing compositions and effective contrasts. Another trend I have noted in Pfeiffer's covers is a much closer marriage of the art to the theme of the song than some other artists. One of Pfeiffer's talents seems to be the ability to capture the essence of the song in the art. In the case of most of his work, it seems you can tell a book by its cover.
A joyful and humorous song, the title pretty much tells it all. The music revolves around the story of Old Deacon Jones, "the black sky-pilot of old Dixie Land". It seems old Deacon Jones bypassed joy for the bible for most of his life but now he is ready to "get mine till I die". It's a pretty scandalous tale but told with so much good humor you can almost overlook the religious and moral implications.
Let's join Old Deacon Jones in celebrating his new found freedom.
Music by: Arthur Lange
Lyrics by: Jeff Branen
Cover artist: Pfeiffer
For our final featured work this month we have an absolutely gorgeous cover that combines Pfeiffer's art with photography to produce a stunning work of art. Many covers from this period used the technique of including a highly decorative photograph of a beautiful person (almost exclusively a woman) surrounded by some terrific art.
Again, we see the elements of Art Deco style in Pfeiffer's work in this cover. Note the vibrant colors and the contrasts. Though he again did not use a wide palette, he did use a combination of colors that are striking and blend with the photo. The geometric patterns around the photo and title also speak to the Art Deco style. Though the photo has some coloring, it is not a color photograph. Another very common practice during the early twentieth century was to "colorize" photos, usually by touching them up with watercolors and pastels to add a suggestion of color. In this case, the color would have been added in the lithography process of printing the sheet music. A very beautiful cover by one of the most eminent artists of the genre.
The music is not quite so splendid though it is a nice ballad. The song is about separated lovers and is marked "Lento" which is a pretty slow tempo. As you will hear, it is almost a dirge even though I have upped the tempo to more of an andante. Much of the music of this period was quite romantic and as such, sometimes tends to be overly sweet to the point of smarmy.
Hear this pleasant old song.
This month, we are again not presenting a gallery page. We are working on a redesign of the site and will be replacing the gallery pages with a more accessible format that will allow a more interactive retrieval of works that interest you or fit certain themes.
You can visit our past issues by going to the Back Issue Directory to see links to all of our past issues and galleries.
Also don't forget to read our essay on E. H. Pfeiffer" to learn more about this fascinating artist.
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