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August 24, 2010

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

"an exact replica of the antique original." I no longer remember when or where I picked this up (it may well have been a thoughtful gift, in which case I am ever so grateful to whoever you are), but I did enjoy uncovering it again and having a fresh look.

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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:22 AM | | Comments (5)


What a great artifact!

The date on these cards is probably more like late 19th century or even early 20th century: The Liszt card has his death year on it. But this is nitpicking.

It's interesting to see how concert culture--the pieces and composers we value any why--has changed over the decades.

Hey, what a great catch. I'm so out of it these days, I didn't even think about the most obvious clue on the game pieces. The latest date printed on a card set is for Verdi's death, 1901, so that makes this all the more fascinating. No Brahms, no Tchaikovsky, no Dvorak -- a few of the popular folks from the turn of the last century for sure, but not "great" enough to warrant inclusion in this game. Thanks for the comments. TIM

Other than packing for a move, that is the at-home chore from hell. Don't spend all your staycation time working on procrastinated-upon chores. :)

The only other music-based card game I've come across is IV-V-I, but there have to be others out there. Thank you for giving me a good use for Google, now.

There is, in fact, a well-known modern version of "The Great Composers" musical game (with just 13 composers, not 17)! You can find it on the internet bookseller sites. This one, c. 1990, is called CLASSICAL & ROMANTIC COMPOSERS, and is published by U.S. Games Systems of Stamford, CT. They also publish AUTHORS which used to be a Parker Brothers game. The composers in the newer composers card game are J.S. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg PLUS Brahms and Tchaikovsky! The game you mention was originally published by the well-known Philadelphia-area music publishers, Theodore Presser Company. You can still find original copies of that game on Ebay. I'm not sure why Tchaikovsky wasn't included in the earlier Presser game (he did, after all, come to New York to dedicate Carnegie Hall in 1890). But I have my own theory: his American publisher was G. Schirmer, who was then, as now, a competitor of Theodore Presser Co! I have both games. Many of the composers are the same, but you are right. Our contemporary attitudes are certainly not the same about their musical output!

Hey, thanks for this great info. I've been trying to understand why, for example, the Verdi card in the game I have omits, say, 'Aida,' in favor of 'Ernani.' But now that you've enlightened me about the source of the game, maybe a lot of this has to do with who had the publishing rights, who wanted to push which composer. Fascinating. Thanks again. TIM

hi,i have found a card game and the box reads musical authors game price,60 cents
theo, presse co.
1712 chestnut street
the cards have a name such as john sebastian bach
with ten questions on it.
would anyone know anything about it??
thanks scott

That's interesting! I know that Theodore Presser Co. published a number of educational musical games back in its "salad days" when it was also publisher of THE ETUDE, which was a magazine subscribed to by generations of music teachers. I haven't heard of your "Musical Authors" game.

I have a coffee-table sized book called "The Games We Played - The Golden Age of Board and Table Games" by Margaret K. Hofer (2003, Princeton Architectural Press) which mentions on page 66:

"The game of AUTHORS, produced in a multiplicity of versions, was one of the best-selling educational card games of the late nineteenth century. Players build "suits" of cards composed of authors and their major works ...


McLoughlin Brothers
New York, N.Y., Copyright 1882

"A variation on the more popular AUTHORS game, MUSICAL AUTHORS familiarizes players with famous composers--such as Handel, Beethoven, Chopin and Wagner--and their major works."

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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