19th century card game offers glimpse into classical music tastes and values
No stay-cation would be complete without tackling a long-delayed, most likely odious project at home. What fun. For me, that means a double closet from hell, one essentially untouched since moving to Baltimore 10 years ago.
Most of the space inside has been taken up with tons of LPs (remember them?), still stored in tightly sealed boxes. I always meant to unpack them, but it was just a lot easier to deal with the thousands of CDs and forget all about those so-last-century vinyl artifacts. Part of me would like to get the whole LP collection out of the house -- a donation, maybe; better yet, sold to the highest bidder for such a princely sum that I could take a real, far-away vacation on the profits. (I can dream, can't I?) For now, I'm just trying to get the records properly shelved at long last, and back in their once-neat, by-composer order.
To get to the LPs, though, has meant sorting through other boxes of assorted debris from the past also crammed into that closet space -- clippings of my peerless prose, keepsakes from my winsome youth, photos, letters, old financial papers, forgotten Christmas wrapping, blah, blah. How nice it must be to have no pack-rat inclinations at all.
Anyway, while taking care of all that extraneous material I came across an item I had long forgotten: "The Great Composers, An Entertaining, Educational 68-piece Musical Card Game." As the cover of the little box proclaims, this is
Inside are 17 four-card sets. "Each card bears the portrait and name of the composer, the dates of his birth and death, and the titles of four of his most important works." How cool is that? The game itself doesn't sound too thrilling -- the object is to collect as many of the same set as possible -- but I do find it fascinating that folks once upon a time may have entertained themselves trying to get all four Gluck cards before any other players did.
What really intrigues me is the choice of composers and compositions for the game, which says a lot about 19th century tastes and values. Today, we all think we know exactly who the great composers are, and exactly what their "most important" works are. We would hardly include Anton Rubinstein in a card game today, but there he is in my cute "exact replica," along with his four greatest achievements: "Nero," "Feramors," the "Ocean" Symphony, and "Paradise Lost." (The only Rubinstein music I really know is the adorable E-flat Prelude that was one of the first things I really loved playing on the piano way back when. I still love it.)
The card game is full of surprises. Although I don’t know when it originally appeared, the evidence suggests the early 1900s (thanks to a commentor -- see below -- for pointing that out; I had stupidly overlooked some key evidence on the cards themselves.) Even by then, I guess Brahms still wasn’t accepted as great by some folks; he’s among the missing. The other composers included may all be familiar (well, Meyerbeer more by reputation than regular encounters with his operas), but not necessarily all the compositions that are attached. Liszt's "Christus" and "Elizabeth," anybody? Schumann's "Paradise and the Peri" and "Genoveva" may be appreciated by connoisseurs now, but these pieces hardly enjoy mainstream status.
When you think of Beethoven’s creative peaks, you’ll surely think of the Ninth Symphony, but would your other three picks be “Fidelio,” “Missa Solemnis” and “Egmont”? Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto isn’t on his game card, but “St. Paul” and the “Hymn of Praise” Symphony are. None of Haydn’s symphonies make the cut. When was the last time you heard Weber’s “Preciosa”? Gounod’s “Redemption”?
I wonder what a Great Composers card game of today would be like, and how dated it would seem 150 years from now.