Thursday, September 3, 2015

Greatest Titles of Pieces of Music

This is one of those posts that falls through the cracks in terms of being able to select an appropriate tag--so I have used my all-purpose one: aesthetics. But I'm just going to talk about titles! It used to be that composers didn't even have to choose a title for their music. For a very long time, most music was either vocal, in which case the first line of the text was automatically the title, or dance music, in which case you could just use the name of the genre: branle, allemande, volta, pavane and so on. This practice extended smoothly into the era when instrumental music became important. At first composers who wrote a lot of pieces in a particular genre didn't even bother with titles. Francesco da Milano wrote dozens and dozens of fantasias and Domenico Scarlatti hundreds of sonatas or "essercizi" without bothering to give any of them individual titles. But that brings to mind the scene where the Pope (Francesco's patron) or the Queen of Spain (Scarlatti's patron) asks the musician to "play me that one I so enjoyed from last winter..." and the poor fellow is stumped because even he can't remember which fantasia or sonata is the right one!

So, titles. An obvious solution was adopted during the 18th and 19th centuries: if you write a lot of sonatas or symphonies, just number the darned things. So this is why we have forty-some symphonies by Mozart, one hundred and six by Haydn, and nine by Beethoven and Bruckner. The same practice extends to piano sonatas, string quartets, trios and other genres. Operas and songs, of course, are named after their characters or texts. The big exception was the instrumental tone poem which acquired a name based on the non-musical inspiration. As these were all program music of one sort or another, the program provides the text, which is why we have such odd titles as "Thus Spake Zarathustra" or "Pohjola's Daughter" by Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius respectively.

And then came the 20th century when, to the more modernist composers, all these traditional naming practices were suddenly old hat, anathema, to be avoided. Some composers took refuge in the pseudo-objectivity of science and we find titles like "Zyklus" or "Continuum" by Stockhausen and Ligeti respectively. Others took over titling practices from visual artists and we find pieces like "Cross Sections and Color Fields" by Earle Brown.

But some composers took a more creative approach and began devising titles that were interesting in themselves. Debussy took the lead, as one of the most important founders of 20th century composition and we find among his titles such poetic ones as "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) or "Épigraphes antiques". His preludes for piano have a host of evocative titles such as "Des pas sur la neige" (Footsteps in the snow) or "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (The girl with the flaxen hair).

Perhaps the most adventurous titles of pieces of music come from another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. A great deal of his music is based on or inspired by Catholic liturgy such as his "Visions de l'Amen" and derive their titles accordingly. But others are creative and striking such as the "Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu" (Bells of anguish and tears of farewell) from his very early set of preludes for piano, written when he was twenty-one. I have always thought that his "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" (Quartet for the end of time) was one of the greatest titles ever, written in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable, while prisoner in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. All of the eight movements also have evocative titles of which I will only mention one: "Abîme des oiseaux" (The abyss of the birds). The symphony Turangalîla takes its title from Sanskrit words so is only immediately evocative if you are up on your Sanskrit. But the movements have very evocative titles such as "Joie du sang des étoiles" (Joy of the blood of the stars). One of my favorite titles by Messiaen is derived from Catholic liturgy, but in Latin, not French. This is his piece for orchestra of winds and percussion titled "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum" ("And I await the resurrection of the dead") which, standing alone as the title of a piece, is formidable indeed.

Let's have a listen to that piece to end today. Here is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor: Myung-Whun Chung:


Marc Puckett said...

(In case you don't already know of this site, One of the 'values added' at this place is that they have provided links to Messiaen's own program notes, or to some of them (?) written for performances or CD editions. Noticed the other day that Craig Burrell, who has commented here, referred in one of his posts to Messiaen's program notes for Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus-- but they weren't in the CD edition that I owned, unless my memory deceives me. Surely someone will publish an edition of all his writing one of these days....)

There is a Pascal Dusapin title that amused me the other day... Sly, I think it was. But I don't know if that's French or English or whatnot; I read it as the English, sly.... Some fairly awful piece for masses of saxophones or trombones.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for that link! No I didn't know of that site. As for Messiaen's notes, I just got a nice box of his music and included is a very hefty booklet--well, it is 310 pages, so is that still just a booklet?--with complete notes, including the occasional musical example, by Messiaen himself. That's the Warner Classics/Erato box of 18 discs.

Marc Puckett said...

Do you mind me asking why you went with that set rather than the DG one?

Bryan Townsend said...

I certainly considered the DGG one, but it was more than twice as expensive when I looked at it (the price seems to have come down). I wasn't sure I needed absolutely everything. Also, the piano works on the Warner offering are played by Yvonne Loriod and quite a bit of the organ music by Messiaen himself. Also, some very fine interpreters of the other music. Extensive program notes by Messiaen himself. It seemed ideal for my purposes.

Marc Puckett said...

Hmm. The advantage to the DG set that I see is that it includes St François. Alas, alas, the movers in your case and other nonsense in mine-- I formerly did have probably three quarters or more, including St F., of the complete works.

Ken Fasano said...

Turangalila - Google knows all: "Turangalîla is a combination of two Sanskrit words: turanga, meaning time and the more difficult to translate lîla, meaning love but also the play that is life and death. The composer explains further by saying, “Love is present here in the same manner [as superhuman, overflowing, binding and unlimited joy]"

Et exspecto - written in 1964 to commemorate the fallen in the two world wars (fiftieth anniversary of the start of the first)

BTW Three day weekend, so I will have a package for you.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, someday I may bitterly regret not buying the DGG set, if only for St-François. But, apart from Mozart, I don't listen to operas much.

The problem with Turangalîla is that if you read all of Messiaen's discussion, it ends up meaning life, death, love, hate--pretty much everything!

Looking forward, Ken!