Classical Music: There's a name for it: Fifth Symphony, Four Seasons, or 'Structures, Book I'? Bayan Northcott explores the mystique of musical titles

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The naming of cats may be as difficult a matter as T S Eliot once asserted. But the naming of works seems to be getting more and more difficult all the time. Imagine, even back in the early 1960s, the anxious care with which the late Cornelius Cardew must have balanced the whimsically insouciant against the bleakly nihilistic to come up with his Three Winter Potatoes for piano. Consider the prolonged search through dictionaries and demotic usage it clearly cost that exuberant Irish master of musical high camp, Gerald Barry, to find a title with just a je ne sais quoi of gross physicality for his characteristic study in squiggling patterns of 1986, Swinging Tripes and Trillibubkins. And think, as he elaborated his raucous fantasia on children's playground games in 1987, how that absurdist son of Ligeti, Benedict Mason, must have struggled to restrain his evident ambition of coming up with the longest title ever, which eventually yielded the lapidary Oil and petrol marks on a wet road are sometimes held to be spots where a rainbow stood.

Sadly, none of these turned up in the Radio 3 discussion on titles that concluded last weekend's edition of Music Matters. Not that the panellists - three of them, indeed, old and dear friends of your critic - lacked lively instances. But one would have hoped by now that even the producers of BBC arts programmes had tumbled to the fact that assembling a whole bench of authorities plus a volatile chairman, tossing a vastly ramified topic at them and then allowing almost no time for its proper discussion, is a sure formula for frustration. After all - and funny names not excluded - a whole history of musical thought and function, fashion and ideology could be unpacked from a study of Western titles over the last few centuries. No doubt, at least on an intuitive level, it is precisely an awareness of such cumulative significances that troubles so many composers in their search for new titles, at least among those who no longer feel happy to fall back on the old standard genres.

Of course, a song can still be named after its text or an opera after its plot or main characters, as they always have been. And up to the late 18th century, when most composers remained in service to church, court or noble household, occasional items in the streams of generic music they poured out to accompany their employers' devotions or recreation could already acquire individualising titles: masses founded upon a specific chant or song, like Missa l'homme arme, or keyboard pieces acknowledging a patron, such as My Lady Careys Dompe. Yet much of the instrumental music of the Baroque and Classical periods still got named by genre alone: Fantazia in five parts, Divertimento in E flat, or whatever. Nor were such categories always clear-cut: J S Bach seemed to use the designation partita or suite interchangeably; Haydn's contemporaries were quite as likely to refer to his symphonies as sinfonias or overtures. From Vivaldi's Four Seasons to Beethoven's Pastoral, composers might sometimes add characteristic subtitles of their own. But many of the most famous repertory nicknames - Farewell, Jupiter, Emperor, Unfinished - only attached themselves years after the works were written.

Admittedly, there were at least a couple of periods when the naming of pieces seems to have become a sport in itself. The fantastical mannerism of Jacobean high culture evidently extended to such titles as Dowland's Lachrimae or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, or more presciently, to a virtually unprecendented genre of personalised miniatures such as Giles Farnaby's Dreame, His Humour, His Rest or Bull's Goodnight. A century later, the court of Versailles was to cultivate an even more sophisticated version of the same thing, reflected in such fanciful and allusive titles as Couperin's La Reine des coeurs or Le Tic-Toc-Choc. But it was not until the 19th century that the idea began to gain ground that each piece ought to have its own evocative title: not Symphony in A minor, but Scottish Symphony; not Suite for piano, but Papillons or Carnaval.

The obvious explanation for this development would seem to be the Romantic revival and the cross- fertilisings of literature and visual arts in the cult of so-called programme music. But real causes were surely more socio-economic. Freed of their old servant status, composers now found themselves increasingly forced into commercial competition, and whoever could come up with the more continuous stream of surprises and novelities was most likely to win the race. No doubt it was still possible for a Romantic spirit such as Chopin to publish an output completely under generic titles - etude, nocturne, polonaise, and so on - and for more conservative composers like Brahms to exploit the historic prestige of the old classical titles. But already Wagner was prophesying the death of the symphony and it was composers such as Berlioz and Liszt, simultaneously trying to devise new forms and to find new poetical titles for them, who thought of themselves as progressive.

Unfortunately, the cult of originality tended to speed up the steady relinquishing to a burgeoning popular music industry of most of the more mundane functions composers had once fulfilled - the scribbling of ballroom music, supplying the parlour piano trade, and what not. By the turn of our own century the main struggle of the 'serious' composer was already to convince enough of the public it needed his music for its own uplifting, exciting, innovatory sake. Only think of the desperate scramble to keep up with the trends as instanced in all those amusing jazz stylisations of the bright young 1920s; all those stirring spirit-of-the-hour fanfares for the Common Man or the Red Army in the war-torn 1940s. Only think of the titles by which the everlasting avant-garde has sought to sustain a sense of cutting edge: all those futuristic scores between the wars with names like Ionisation or Pacific 231; all those abstractly 'scientific' titles that tumbled out of postwar Darmstadt, from Structures Book I to Time and Motion Study Number whatever.

But increasingly it would seem the real pressure is to come up with a title that will engage the almighty market, ever more concentrated in a handful of multi-media coporations seeking to sell 'classical' music by pop chart methods. One gathers that the whole, relentlessly accessible structure of Nixon in China arose out of a joke between its composer, John Adams, and the producer, Peter Sellars, as to what the modern equivalent of a title such as Gluck's Iphigenia in Aulis might be. How many other works these days are entirely vamped up to fulfill likely titles, one wonders, and what is the composer to do, who wishes to resist such temptations and simply, honestly call a work after its content? Even resorting to strictly neutral titles, such as Music for Orchestra or Study No 1, may no longer serve since some copywriter is bound to enthuse, 'Excitingly austere composer X . . .'

One subterfuge remains, pioneered (like so much else) by Erik Satie, in his deliberately off-putting titles: Venomous Obstacles, Unappetising Chorale, Three Waltzes of a Disgusting Affectation. Supposing the creator of one of the most inescapable of recent classical hits had called it Sacred pseudo-symphony for soprano and orchestra eked out with interminable repetitions of plodding common chords, or another recent media prize-winner had been entitled Corny rip-off of Tippett, Copland and Stravinsky purporting to convey a deep contrition over the fate of witches in 18th-century Scotland, how could we not bow to such sublime transparency? Or would that just be letting too many cats out of the bag?

Comments