Friday, November 8, 2013

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
--Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

A commentator on my post yesterday on the "Linz" Symphony asks if pieces pick up popular nicknames because they are particularly outstanding pieces or if they become popular because of the nickname? This reminds me of a passage in Aristotle (I think it might be in the Metaphysics) where he says that we desire things because they are good, they are not good because we desire them.

It would be nice to be able to give a simple answer one way or the other, but, as usual, it is a bit complicated. For one thing, pieces acquire nicknames often purely by chance.  For example, as one writer tells us:
In 1789, the London publisher John Bland traveled to Vienna in search of new works for publication. Dropping in on Haydn, he found the composer attempting to shave. “I would give my best quartet for a good razor!” he exclaimed. Bland promptly ran back to his lodgings and returned with his own razors of fine English steel. Haydn kept his promise and handed over his latest string quartet (op. 55 No. 2), which is still commonly known as the “Rasiermesser Quartett” (razor quartet).
This nickname has probably neither helped nor hurt the quartet's popularity, but it does assist in remembering which quartet is which out of the sixty or so Haydn wrote! Here is the Tatrai Quartet with Haydn's op 55, no. 2, the "Razor" Quartet:

But often the nickname does stem from some quality in the music itself and a particularly famous example is the "Moonlight" Sonata of Beethoven or, as he called it, the Sonata quasi una Fantasia per il Clavicembalo o Piano-Forte, Opera 27, No. 2. I'll bet you didn't know that Beethoven himself indicated that this piece could also be played on harpsichord, the translation of "clavicembalo"? The name "Moonlight" Sonata was added after Beethoven's death by the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who likened the shimmering timbre of the first movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. This piece, one of the most-known and most-loved pieces of classical music, would be just as popular even if it did not have a nickname. But it is so powerfully evocative that acquiring a nickname was almost inevitable. Can you think of another nickname that would be as suitable? Here is that first movement with a photo of moonlight on Lake Lucerne:

As proof that a piece of music needs no nickname to be popular I offer the most popular symphony ever written, also by Beethoven and known now as it always has been as "Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67". That opening motif has picked up the nickname the "Fate" motif, but the symphony as a whole is known simply as "No. 5". Here is the first movement:

Haydn's music has picked up a huge number of nicknames just because he wrote so much music. You might ask, well, why hasn't the music of Telemann picked up a lot of nicknames as well and the answer is simple: we still play much of the music of Haydn and the nicknames help us remember which piece is which. Telemann we don't bother with. Haydn wrote so many symphonies, well over a hundred, that just trying to keep straight which C major symphony is which is a challenge. So, lots of nicknames: "The Hen", "The Clock", "Drumroll", "Surprise", "Lamentatione" and so on.

The practice continued into the 19th century with pieces like Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony:

What a fantastic opening! I think Schubert was the first to begin a symphony with just the horns (or other brass), but lots of people, including Mahler, emulated him.

The practice seems to have died out in the 20th century for a couple of reasons: one is that composers no longer write dozens or hundreds of pieces in the same genre so there is no need of an aide memoire and now composers, instead of using generic titles like "sonata" or "symphony" tend to invent their own nicknames and call them titles like George Crumb's Black Angels for string quartet. Here is the first section of that quartet called "Night of the Electric Insects":

Personally, I would rather have the moonlight, but that's just me...

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