Photo: Symphony Hall, Boston (Wikipedia Commons)
As I moved on to the third side of the first volume of the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection--the final movement of the second symphony, and the Leonore Overture, with the third symphony beginning on side four--I decided to research the set. Here's what I learned: though the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection might have been a fine investment in timeless music for the subscribers who purchased it via mail-order in the early 70s, it wasn't a very sound investment on financial terms.
The exact cost is a little blurry in the contemporary advertisements I've found online, but it looks like subscribers paid in the vicinity of $15 per volume, including shipping and handling. That translates to north of $1,000 in 2014 dollars for the complete set. It won't cost you that much to get your hands on a copy of the collection today, though: a couple of hopeful souls are asking $125 on eBay, and finding no buyers. People seem only vaguely interested when the price drops to $50 for all 85 records.
That's further evidence of how the vinyl resurgence hasn't hit the classical world the way it's hit the indie-rock world, but even classical vinyl buffs aren't very interested in this set. There's a lot of Beethoven out there, and the few people looking for vintage records of these performances would prefer to buy the original releases rather than the reissues in the Time Life set, which are regarded as being lower-quality pressings.
What this all means is that there are a lot of people like me out there: owners of a very impressive-looking but not particularly valuable collection of Beethoven recordings.
It does look impressive there on the shelf, and of course there's no composer more likely to impress the casual visitor than the mighty Beethoven. By his bicentennial, Beethoven had become regarded as the quintessential composer: the musical linchpin between the classical and romantic eras, with a poignant and inspirational personal story.
It's telling that in 1900, just as "classical music" was coalescing as a field, Boston's Symphony Hall was built with a single name adorning the medallion at the summit of its proscenium: BEETHOVEN. The German composer didn't just epitomize classical music, he virtually defined it. His (literal) position in the firmament is all the more striking given that he'd only been dead for 73 years--the builders of Symphony Hall were only as distant from Beethoven as we are from Jelly Roll Morton.
So, naturally, if you were looking to trick out your record collection circa 1970 with an impressive set of music by one composer, it would have to be Beethoven. A few hundred 1970s dollars--payable in 17 easy installments--must have seemed like a very small price to pay for 85 sleek black discs of genius incarnate.
Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 1 & 2