January 6, 2011

A different breed of classic Penguins


Bibliophiles are probably aware of the many iterations of Penguin Classics, but they might be surprised to learn that, for a time, Penguin published musical scores as well. Started in 1949 and printed through the end of the 1950s, Penguin Scores was conceived as a series of thirty classic works by composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms. The books, which were produced in a wide, pocket-sized paperback format, with brief historical notes on the music and musicians, represented a selection of works which would have been familiar to the general public during this period, and were likely meant to bring musical texts to a broader audience—just as Penguin Classics did with literature.

The Penguin Scores also represent an interesting moment in the history of graphic design. Jan Tschichold, the books’ designer, was among the first to call for a modernist approach to typography, and his 1928 manifesto Die neue Typographie, still widely influential today, would eventually help to usher in the era of Helvetica. But following his arrest by the Gestapo in 1933 for creating “un-German” typography and his subsequent escape to Switzerland, he began to view modernism as an authoritarian movement itself, and he retreated from his strongly held views. By 1947, when he was hired by Penguin to consult on the design of their new Classics series, Tschichold advocated a return to classical typography, and the Penguin Scores, with a typeface dating to the 16th century, could be seen as a final repudiation of his earlier work. Ironically, his covers came into wide distribution in the 1950s, just as the modernist, so-called International Style — which Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie had helped to create — was rising to become the dominant mode of design in the western world.

You can see more of Tschichold’s elegant covers for the Penguin Scores here.

Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.