The Bootleg Files: 120 Music Masterpieces

BOOTLEG FILES 722: “120 Music Masterpieces” (long-running TV commercial for a mail-order set of classical music recordings).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: TV commercials have no reissue value after they ran their course.


If you were watching American television in the 1970s and the early 1980s, there is an excellent chance that you will recall a rather unusual commercial that popped up primarily on local independent stations. It featured a distinguished older British gentleman offering an erudite pitch for the purchase of a mail-order collection of classical music recordings.

The commercial stood out for many reasons: a two-minute running time that was considerably longer than the average TV advertisement, a high-brow product that one never encountered in the deliriously tacky world of commercials, and a sales spiel that aimed at the intellect rather than the funny bone or the heartstrings. It certainly broke all of the rules of the era’s TV commercials, as well as its record for longevity: it first appeared in 1971 and was still playing until 1984.

The product was “120 Music Masterpieces,” a selection of classical music compositions gathered for a four-album selection. By the 1970s, classical music record sales were nowhere near the levels enjoyed by rock, pop, country, R&B or other genres with a wider appeal. But the clever folks at Columbia House believed they could find a new audience for the old classical pieces in a manner that made them seem contemporary yet timeless.

The key to this effort was having a salesman who could convince the viewer that he needed to buy four records with 120 classical music compositions. In one of the most brilliant casting moves ever, the company hired John Williams, a British actor who had been a supporting presence in several popular Hollywood films – most notably as Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur father in “Sabrina” and the inspector in “Dial M for Murder” – and was briefly Sebastian Cabot’s replacement on the sitcom “Family Affair.” Williams had the posh accent and sense of upper class style that most Americans would associate with a wealthy and wise British aristocrat, but he was not a household name or a too-familiar face, thus preventing the chance of having the marketing clouded by a celebrity aura.

The “120 Music Masterpieces” begins in a somewhat eccentric setting. A classical music piece is heard on the soundtrack as the camera finds a bust of Beethoven placed on a pedestal behind a harp within an odd room with an oversized potted palm, brick wallpaper and dingy old paintings in dark frames. There is some kind of a cabinet – whether it is an old-fashioned stereo system is unclear – and the business suit-clad Williams taps his hand on the furniture before looking straight into the camera and pronouncing: “I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody as ‘Stranger in Paradise’. But did you know that the original theme is from the Polovetsian Dance No. 2 by Borodin? So many of the tunes of our well-known popular songs were actually written by the great masters, like these familiar themes.”

From here, we get snippets of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” (also identified as “Our Love”), Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” (also identified as “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) and Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto #1” (also identified as “Tonight We Love”).

Williams gracefully informs us that this collection offers the greatest works of classical music “performed by Europe’s finest musicians.” The commercial never actually identifies the orchestras that were recorded, but no one at the time seemed to mind.

“It’s a priceless introduction to the classics that will enrich every home,” says Williams, laying on the Old World charm while standing next to a piano that has the four-album set displayed upward. In the background is another piece of furniture topped with weirdly oversized candelabrums. Williams insists that “there’s a great deal more” via the inclusion of a “special collection” called “30 Piano Masterpieces” that features “30 of the most beautiful masterpieces ever composed for the keyboard.”

Williams closes the commercial holding an unidentified book while joyfully proclaiming, “Yes, here is a unique opportunity own some of the world’s most beautiful music. Here’s how to order yours.” From there, the commercial closes with information for viewers to either call up to make a purchase or to mail a check or money order to obtain the records.

“120 Music Masterpieces” first showed up on television screens in 1971. Over the years, the price of the collection was increased, and in later years the music was compiled in 8-track tapes and cassettes. A company called Vista Marketing took over the collection and the advertising from Columbia House and an unidentified actor flawlessly dubbed Williams’ presentation to include the new entity in the pitch. In 1984, the commercial finally overstayed its welcome and was removed from rotation.

The mainstream media mostly ignored “120 Music Masterpieces,” mostly because it was absent from network broadcasts and strictly a local TV station offering. New York Times music critic Henry Edwards picked up on its for a 1973 column featuring his reviews of the mail order record collections of the time. Edwards sneered that the presentation was “assuredly not for the serious and knowledgeable classical listener; nor are they for misguided parents who might think that these disks could make ‘a splendid young people’s introduction to classical music.’” He also complained the performances “range from pedestrian to horrendous, with dull and leaden being the operative words.”

It is unclear how many records were sold by this commercial, but the number must have been substantial enough to warrant its 13-year run. Neither “120 Music Masterpieces” nor “30 Piano Masterpieces” were ever released on CD, but the original vinyl recordings are easily found on several e-commerce sites. The TV commercial can be found on YouTube, albeit in a slightly blurry posting. And for those of us within a certain age demographic, Williams’ classy two-minute praise of this music collection will certain spark a happy nostalgic smile for a time when television advertising was still capable of possessing a modicum of class.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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