Tags



Bach's Sonata for solo violin No. 1 in
g minor, BWV 1001 (Adagio).

In the comments to one of Pam's posts a commentator brought up the
subject of naming conventions in classical music.

"This reminds me of something that annoys that crap out of me. The
weird song titles of most Classical music … WHY would anyone give a
flip in what Key these songs are played? I certainly don't. I mean, you
didn't hear the Doobie Brothers titling a song – Listen to the Music in
E Major. Chicago didn't title their classic – Colour My World in F Major
7. They just stuck to the nitty gritty."

I thought I would take a little time to explain why that is, to the best
of my ability at least.

What we know today as "classical" music (as opposed to folk or popular
music) has a long history dating back to at least medieval times. Across
the years conventions arose as to naming particular works. The history
isn't exactly a linear one nor is it consistent. "It is the way it is."

Let me start out with a kind of well-known benchmark here — the works
of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Back in Bach's day those who wrote
music generally wrote some work or another in return for payment in the
form of cash or a gift. Some composers, if they were lucky, found positions
with wealthy aristocrats where they would be expected to produce music
for the pleasure of the aristocrat. Bach held several of these "paying jobs"
throughout his life.

In Bach's day there was only a minimal publishing industry (printing
was very expensive then) and of course no recording industry. The common
practice for a composer was to compose a work, perform it, then take the
sheet music and put it on a shelf or whatever in case it needed to be
performed later. Sometimes the composer would write some sort of title
across the top of the music to identify it. But while there was a
tendency for composers of songs to just write the song title, the bulk
of classical music in Bach's day was either instrumental or instrumental
with vocal (masses, cantatas, oratorios). So if the work was given a
title at all it was just given something like Sonata in D. The reason for
including the key being that one composer might write a whole bunch of
sonatas etc., so it was necessary to distinguish them from each other.
That was basically the first naming convention, then: The type of work
and its key. Bach tended to be very detailed about titles (if he bothered
to write them at all), perhaps because he was so prolific.

After Bach many composers started adding numbers to the work in order
to distinguish it from other works. This was mainly due to the growing
publishing industry, who needed to keep track of things more neatly for
their catalogues. Beethoven, for example wrote more than one piano
sonata in the key of B-flat — his 11th piano sonata and his 29th. So
that was the next step really, and thus we get Piano Sonata No. 29
in B-flat.

Somewhere at that same time composers started distinguishing their works
be assigning so-called "Opus numbers" to them. "Opus" is just the Italian
word for "work," a composition. Music publication also figured into this.
So then we end up with something like Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Op. 106.
It should be mentioned that the assignment of some of these didn't have
anything to do with the order of composition of the work.

Now things get even more involved. Sometimes a composer would write a
dedication line or some phrase below the title that eventually entered
into the name of the work. And sometimes the work was simply given an
"affectionate" title by the listening public or a publisher. The
"Emperor Concerto," for example, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in
E-flat Op. 73, was titled such by one of Beethoven's publishers. This
tradition continues today in several ways. If you say "the Emperor"
every classical music fan knows what you are talking about. So in a
sense some classical works of the past actually are known by simpler
titles such as you find in contemporary songs. But the vast majority
of the music of the past does not carry this type of title.

Now things get a bit more complicated still. As I mentioned a lot of
the music of Bach's day or earlier wasn't published. And there was a
tendency for a while for music to be forgotten about after a composer's
death. But eventually this music, such as Bach, was rediscovered and
pulled off the shelves where the sheets had been gathering dust. And
eventually the works of one composer or another were catalogued by music
historians. Bach's complete works (or at least all the ones that have
been discovered to this point) were catalogued in the mid-20th century
by Wolfgang Schmieder. Thus Bach's compositions now also have BWV
numbers, which is short for Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue).
Mozart's works were catalogued by Ludwig KΓΆchel; and so we now have
Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major K. 330.

I'm leaving out a few minor things in terms of clarity, but that's
basically it. Though the naming conventions of classical music may seem
kind of crazy, that is how it evolved and that is how it continues
today. Classical musicians tend to start very early, and quickly get
used to the namings. And music listeners soon grow used to it also.

And by the way, next February I will be going to see Valentina Lisitsa
play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18. Which is
known pretty much universally among classical music fans as "the Rock
2." Another convention.

My thanks to Pam and Suntana for the interesting dialogue.