Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why in the world do cello pieces have such weird obscure titles?

The other day while I was driving to work listening to one of Bach's cello suites, and I glanced down to look at my player to see which piece was being played. Unfortunately, only the first portion of the title was displayed (not helpful at all), and I thought, "Why in the world do pieces have such weird obscure titles, and why can't this darn player show me the entire title?!" So frustrating!

I had plugged in my iphone to listen to my music, so the display wasn't scrolling through the entire title. I'm sure there's a way to change the setting to scroll through, but my un-savvy tech self hasn't set that up yet, which I'm sure I'll mess up somehow...

Coincidentally, a few weeks later in my Music Appreciation class we went over why classical compositions had such "weird" titles. It was just so freakin cool and fun to learn about it I thought I'd post some of the information. The textbook we are using is Perspectives on Music by David C. Meyer. I'm not a music major, I'm just taking this class to fulfill my Language & Arts requirement and thought it would be a fun easy course. So far, its been very fun and informative, but surprisingly a LOT of work!

Narrative Titles versus Generic Titles

A narrative title (a.k.a. Program Music) is used for pieces that are connected to a story. The title prepares the listener what to expect and if a story will unfold, e.g. The Swan. 
The example in the textbook used Vivaldi's The Four Season, which represents one of the earliest example of program music. He published a set of four concertos around 1725 with one concerto for each season. Ahead of his time, he also provided a sonnet to accompany each of the concertos. The sonnet was meant to be read while listening to the music and he even placed them in the musician's parts to help with musical interpretation! Too bad a lot more composers didn't do this, I think it opens up a lot more doors for interpretations and provides a clearer picture of what the composer was trying to accomplish.

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Spring I: Op 8/1, RV 269, "Spring" - I. Allegro

Spring has arrived, and festively
The birds greet it with cheerful song
And the brooks, caressed by soft breezes,
Murmur sweetly as they flo.

They sky is covered with a black mantle, 
Lightening and thunder announce a storm.
When the storm dies away to silence, the birds
Return with their melodious songs.

After learning about this, every time I hear this piece it totally makes me smile! Imagining the chirping birds and impending thunderstorms with the birds flapping around seeking shelter. I always imagine little baby birds poking their heads out after the storm to check to see if the coast is clear - it's just SO CUTE!!



A generic title informs the listener the genre of the music and provides the composition's information. So the example of the Bach piece, where my in-dash player was only showing "6 Suites Son..." instead of showing the full title:

6 Suites Sonatas for cello BWV 1007-12: Suite No 1. in G Major, BWV 1007 Prelude 

The breakdown of the title:
  • Form: Tells us what form the composition will follow. In this case it's in Sonata Form so it will have an Exposition, Development, Recapitulation and Coda. Other forms include concerto, symphony, etc. Also, it tells us there are 6 movements in this composition
  • Catalog System: Titles using the number from the catalog of the complete works instead of an opus number means that composer didn't publish a lot of works during their lifetimes. Many composers have between 100 to 200 opus numbers, but some have more than a thousand! For Bach, BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis' catalog system which is then followed by the catalog number. Mozart's work are assembled by Ludwig Kochel and is appended in the title as "K," for Schubert the catalog is by Otto Erich Deutsch which is listed as "D" 
  • Musical Key: provides the key the piece will be played
  • Movement/Tempo: Indicates which movement out of the six suites will be played: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Galanteries & Gigue. Typically it will provide the movement number which is usually given in Roman numerals and the tempo marking of the movement. If all of the movements are being performed in a concert, than the movement is usually listed beneath the main title 

Other Examples:
Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, I, Molto Allegro
Handel, Concerto Grosso in G Major, Op. 3 No. 3

  • Opus Number: Opus means "work," abbreviated "Op." This number is assigned by the composer to the pieces as their work gets published. Therefore, the first work is always Op. 1, and then Op. 2 and so on. This tell us whether the work was written earlier in the composer's career
  • Composition Number: The composition number is included within the opus number. In Baroque and Classical periods, publishers sometimes bundled together works in groups of six or twelve. So for Handel's Op. 3 Concertos, you have to indicate which concerto you are referring to in the set of six, in the example it's number three out of the six
  • Type of Piece: the number (usually in the order the composition is written) regarding that kind of piece, e.g. Symphony, Concerto, etc.  
  • Composer's Name: provides composer's last name

Anyway, I thought it was fun learning about that, so I thought I'd share!

1 comment:

  1. wow thanks for sharing ( +1 for the colorful headers :D )..they really do have a system for everything!