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: