What’s in a title?

16th July 2016 | Concerts, Musings | 14 comments

I haven’t written much recently because I seem to have turned into a ‘news junkie’ following the UK’s vote to Brexit. I did write a blog post about Brexit, but it attracted no responses so I went back to reading newspapers and law blogs. Many other music organisations have since published their own statements of concern and alarm about the effect of Brexit on the world of classical music. So I’m leaving the topic aside unless there’s any indication that readers want to join in.

The other day, I was listening to a Scottish radio station while working in the kitchen. It was a programme of folk music – reels, strathspeys, old bagpipe melodies and so on. Once again I was struck by the delightful titles of these old tunes, some of which seem almost too dramatic for the plain little tunes they are harnessed to: ‘The Unjust Incarceration’. ‘The Lament for the Sword’. ‘The Tune of Strife’. ‘Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks’. ‘The Flame of Wrath for Squint Peter’. ‘I return no more’. ‘I am proud I play a pipe’. And my long-standing favourite, the classic pibroch melody ‘Too Long in This Condition’. What a range of interpretations this summons up!

As I was listening to a dance winningly called ‘The Burnt Potato’, I found myself wishing that classical music had adopted the same approach to its titles. I’ve long thought that the neutral titles of classical music are part of what’s now called ‘its image problem’. Now that music fans have got used to the colourful titles of today’s pop songs and albums, it’s perhaps hard for them to feel curious about somebody’s ‘Symphony no. 2’ or ‘Etude in F sharp minor’, their Concerto K488, their Invention in C minor or their ‘Sonata in A flat opus 110’.

Of course, to those who know and love the music, the title is nothing more than an identifier. Why should the title matter when the music is a whole world?

But these days when writing down the titles of works for concert programmes, I’ve often wished that instead of writing ‘Prelude opus 39 no 2’ or whatever, I could write ‘The Burnt Potato’. Or perhaps ‘The Crispy Aubergine’, or ‘The Handful of Thyme’. Maybe ‘The Path through the Labyrinth’.

Yes, there are some classical pieces with great titles. Janacek’s ‘Intimate Letters’. Debussy’s Preludes for piano: ‘The amphitheatre by moonlight’; Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. But most of the great works are very sparingly named, according to the custom of the time. It would be fun to be able to re-name them.

14 Comments

  1. Eccles

    Haydn symphonies and quartets are a rich field for nicknames: the lark, the frog, how do you do, the razor, the miracle, the absent-minded man, times are changing,

    Or perhaps you could offer a recital of nicknamed Beethoven sonatas, without giving the name of the composer or any opus numbers: moonlight, the goodbyes, the keyboard with hammers.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Quite right! Thank you for these nice ideas.

      Reply
  2. Jess

    As a piano teacher, I completely agree – it’s much easier to introduce a piece (especially classical) to young students if it has a descriptive and imaginative name. The vast majority of contemporary educational pieces have interesting titles. It’s always fun to get their suggestions for titles though instead!

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Great idea, Jess, to get students’ alternative ideas for titles!

      Reply
  3. Steve L.

    Great point. No one reads (or writes) ‘Novel no. 1,’ and personally I dislike standing in front of a painting that is called ‘Untitled.’

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Beautifully put and so succinct, Steve!

      Reply
  4. Rikky Rooksby

    I can see how this might work for short piano pieces, but I’m not sure about longer works with no text and no stated programme. The occasional metaphor applied to a piece of ‘absolute’ music by a critic or reviewer can sometimes provide a useful handle onto an otherwise abstract piece. But there is a problem that the title may just be too small or banal for bigger works. For example, Nielsen 6 ‘the Heart Attack’? And yes, I know Nielsen gave some of his symphonies titles.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Rikki, you are right, of course. I suppose that is really why ‘neutral titles’ have lasted so long. Colourful snappy titles are great for pop tracks lasting 3 minutes – but not so great for a massive and varied symphony lasting three-quarters of an hour!

      Reply
  5. peter

    This is why music publishers have intervened – ‘moonlight sonata’, ‘raindrop prelude’, etc.

    Reply
  6. Liz O'Keeffe

    There is also an increasing trend to title recordings (Der Musikalische Garten’s 2015 album Zu Gast im Blauen Haus, for example, or the 2016 Fred Jacobs Visee album Intimite et Grandeur), and orchestras are tending to title their concert performaces as well – the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s current concert is called Blazing Baroque. Is titling a work, or a collection, or a performance, seen as an important marketing tool – an attractor and a differentiator?

    I’ve come to this blog via your books – a wonderful insight into the real life of a classical performer. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Liz. You’re right about the new trend in giving albums an evocative title – I hadn’t thought about that when writing my post. As Rikki pointed out, it’s hard to find a title that’s appropriate for a longer work, or in this case a whole album of different music – perhaps that is why such album titles often seem a bit like ‘marketing’. But one can also see why classical musicians are inclined to try the approach!

      Reply
  7. Will Duffay

    I like opus and catalogue numbers because of the nerdish satisfaction they provide for memorising codes and for collecting works. But I can understand how they might be off-putting.

    However, one of the confusing things for me about jazz and pop/rock is that the title of each work gives no clue about how it relates to any of the artist’s other work. Op. 10 tells me that the composer probably composed 9 earlier works, but ‘This is my song’ could be her first, last or 99th. For me, as an initiate, numbers are an orientation tool which text titles lack, however descriptive they are.

    I guess the other point about descriptive titles for classical music is that instrumental pieces are usually absolute, and composers get a bit sniffy about imposing a meaning on a something abstract. There might be no meaning, or the imposed meaning might be too restrictive. Poor VW and his Pastoral – though he named it himself!

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Very good and important point, Will, that numbers are ‘an orientation tool’ which tell you something about the work’s place in the composer’s catalogue.
      You’re right too that titles can seem irrelevant to abstract music. I wonder what present-day composers think about this issue? They often give very evocative titles to their work.

      Reply
  8. James B

    Oh Susan, please forward this to a national newspaper, it should be read by a wider audience!

    Reply

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