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OK, that's a rhetorical question, because we all know the answer whistle.

Where would Pathétique, Moonlight, Pastoral, Tempest, Waldstein, Appassionata, Les Adieux and Hammerklavier be without their titles? Never mind the composer didn't always sanction their titles (and would be positively fuming, even foaming at the mouth, if he'd known about one of them......). It's the thought that counts. Or the fact that they have titles we can all remember, at least, if they mean (or resemble, or remind us of) something in English. Waldstein sounds very Count-ish (one can imagine him living in a Bavarian castle that happens to be in Transylvania wink ), Hammerklavier sounds like a hammer trying to break something (like a klavier), which actually is quite apt for what the work itself sounds like.......

Even more so with Aeolian Harp, Revolutionary, Heroic, Military, Raindrop, Minute. They do provide us with something to listen for, whether or not the composer intended it. Titles in another language that sound even better when misunderstood in English (like Fur/für Elise smirk ) are just......wonderful.

I often get asked the title of an appealing piece after my recitals (for which no programs are given to audiences - they just get what I feel like playing on that day wink ), and I frequently see puzzlement and disappointment on their faces when I say "Sonata xyz" "Prelude xxx" or "Etude abc", 'Suite No.007', or even "Rondo capriccioso" and "Widmung" (how could they possibly remember - or want to remember - such obscure non-English titles?) OK, a few might sound more appealing in translation, though "Study" sounds, er, studied, and "Dedication" sounds rather generic. As do 'Ballade No.0' and 'Scherzo No.1' and 'Impromptu No.2' and Nocturne 'No.3' and......

Maybe it's time composers gave their pieces much more interesting titles - especially piano pieces. After all, with pop songs, you have titles that positively draw you in, like "Bad Romance", "Smelly Cat" etc smirk . Whereas even with classical piano pieces that have descriptive titles by the composer, they tend to be somewhat bland, like flora and fauna etc. (Who wants to listen to a piece called "Pine" or "Manatee"?) Whereas more imaginative (and original) titles like 'Rustle of Spring' and 'Wedding Day at Troldhaugen' (and 'Erotik' of course) tickle our fancy, and entice the hoi polloi to have a listen, even if they think Richard Clayderman is the only classical pianist in the world worth hearing. And of course French titles, like French fashion and French food, are usually endearing, especially if we misread or mistranslate them.....like Claire de lune wink (Claire of/from the moon?). But titles like Feuilles mortes and Désordre, even L'escalier du diable are too esoteric, too.....messy, even when translated, whereas a girl with flaxen hair or 'dance of the beautiful maiden' is more appealing (and not just to male pianists). A few French composers from hundreds of years ago already showed the way - for instance, we all know about those mysterious barricades (which sound as good in English).

Classical music has an image problem, starting with their titles. Not just esoteric but also elitist, and therefore off-putting, like quantum mechanics and black holes. (Who wants to go into them?) Methinks it's time composers give their works more appealing names in the universal language of English (not Esperanto). Not Latin please (Sonata Trinitas appeals?). What we need are imaginative, original titles that still manage to convey something about the music. Two I've seen recently from established composers are "Hill Stanzas" (piano concerto) and - much better - "That Crazed Smile" (piano trio). So, how about it, composers?

What do the grizzled and bearded senior PWers among us think?


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Not grizzled or bearded (haha) but it might help a bit. It certainly makes refer to a piece easier because instead of saying Chopin op 25 no 11 to people and have them go "what?" we can say "Winter Wind" and they'll go "oh it's that one".

But as far as the popularity aspect goes, the lack of lyrics in a lot of classical music as well as the great length and listener education and attention required for some pieces probably prohibits their appeal to a very wide audience. As far as I can tell, the lack of lyrics is one of the bigger reasons. For example, many of my friends don't really listen to instrumental music at all, possibly with the exception of some video game or movie soundtracks since they have inherent context with them. Purely instrumental music may be more difficult to digest for them.

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On the other hand you have Rachmaninoff pissed off by audiences so often screaming "C sharp minor!".

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I give my improvisations titles so I have some show, when revisiting them, of finding specific passages and sounds from the past from a heap of over six hundred hour long recording sessions. With a handful of exceptions they are purely personal, frequently nonsense, and serve mostly as mnemonics. If people listen I would far rather they impose associations meaningful to themselves from their own listening minds. As far as other people's music goes I concoct all sorts of weird associations, images and titles, that's part of the fun; but I doubt the relevance of these to anybody else.

Last edited by Ted; 05/14/22 10:24 PM.

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Originally Posted by bennevis
Where would Pathétique,

hmmm ..... I have to check on what 'pathetique' means. If it really means pathetic, then that probably wouldn't be a great title hahaha

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Catchy titles might be helpful, but they can't on their own make music well known. Satie excelled in creating really unusual and evocative titles ("limp preludes for a dog"!), but most of his music is entirely unknown - even by people who like his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes.


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Originally Posted by QuasiUnaFantasia
Catchy titles might be helpful, but they can't on their own make music well known. Satie excelled in creating really unusual and evocative titles ("limp preludes for a dog"!), but most of his music is entirely unknown - even by people who like his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes.
Satie is an outlier because he makes up jokey titles for his pieces which make no sense, as well as invent new names. Even so, I'd wager that some of his pieces would have remained completely unknown and unplayed if they didn't have those funny titles (like his pear-shaped piece).

Titles need to strike a balance between the mundane and the irrelevant, I think, to be effective, and give some idea as to what the piece is like. Even better if the title was actually the inspiration for the composer to write the piece, rather than invented afterwards (like Debussy's for his Préludes). Grieg, for instance, has plenty of Norse mythology to draw on, e.g. March of the Trolls means exactly what it says, and the pianist should play it as such. (Trolls aren't known for their subtlety or grace.)

But there are still some pieces that are rarely played despite their enticing and descriptive titles, like this one, which means exactly what it says (and with an unexpected riotous conclusion grin) - which gives the performer lots of opportunities to show his imagination and coloristic skills, as here:


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The "titles" that irritate me the most are such as "Allegro" by Mozart, "Adagio" by Beethoven. Aaarrgh!

Most people I know can't name classical pieces, titled or not. In my German class a few weeks ago we were doing a light hearted quiz with a toy buzzer for the fastest correct answers. The class was stunned by my lightning responses to Für Elise & Co!
But naming films or pop songs after about the 1980s was not so impressive! Like them with the classics, I knew the works but couldn't recall titles, snappy or not.

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Originally Posted by dorfmouse
The "titles" that irritate me the most are such as "Allegro" by Mozart, "Adagio" by Beethoven. Aaarrgh!

There is one category that is even worse. Fantasy names invented by the editor. "Ducks in the pond" "Teddy bear dance" "Rowing in the park" to mention just a few. If you are lucky, the name of the composer is mentioned, but that is not always the case. Arrrgh!


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You have Rossini's "Pêchés de vieillesse" (sins of old age). They contain a non-dancing waltz, an asthmatic etude, a rheumatic waltz, a little pleasure train, a waltz with castor oil...
And yet, some of his operas, and even ouvertures of operas, are more popular than his late piano works.
So if amusing titles make pieces more popular, I guess people indifferent to Rossini didn't get the memo. wink


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I think the reverse of what the OP suggests might be true. When the piece becomes popular and/or when people think it's a great work, the title comes afterwards. I don't know when some of the pieces mentioned by him were given their names, but I suspect many of them got their names many years after they were published. If the Waldstein hadn't been such a great piece, would it have gone by that name just because Beethoven dedicated the work to him?

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Originally Posted by patH
You have Rossini's "Pêchés de vieillesse" (sins of old age). They contain a non-dancing waltz, an asthmatic etude, a rheumatic waltz, a little pleasure train, a waltz with castor oil...
And yet, some of his operas, and even ouvertures of operas, are more popular than his late piano works.
So if amusing titles make pieces more popular, I guess people indifferent to Rossini didn't get the memo. wink
I'd say that the same applies to Rossini's titles as to Satie's - even more so, in fact, because Rossini is hardly known as a piano composer, even in Italy: his titles are jokey and tell us nothing about the music. Whereas Satie is mainly a piano composer, and everyone knows his Gymnopédies (though few people know that they were nude dances wink )............and at least there is a whiff of Ancient Greece about them, and the music likewise sounds anciently exotic.


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I think the reverse of what the OP suggests might be true. When the piece becomes popular and/or when people think it's a great work, the title comes afterwards. I don't know when some of the pieces mentioned by him were given their names, but I suspect many of them got their names many years after they were published. If the Waldstein hadn't been such a great piece, would it have gone by that name just because Beethoven dedicated the work to him?
The Pathétique was named in his lifetime with his approval, as was the Waldstein.

Is the Waldstein really greater than any of Op.109 - Op.111, none of which ever acquired any nicknames, and Op.111 especially is justly popular among concert pianists? Op.110 is popular with amateurs because it is easy but it still never acquired a nickname, though one could justifiably call it 'Fugal apotheosis' (sorry, it's my bedtime and I can't think of something more colorful).


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Originally Posted by bennevis
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I think the reverse of what the OP suggests might be true. When the piece becomes popular and/or when people think it's a great work, the title comes afterwards. I don't know when some of the pieces mentioned by him were given their names, but I suspect many of them got their names many years after they were published. If the Waldstein hadn't been such a great piece, would it have gone by that name just because Beethoven dedicated the work to him?
Is the Waldstein really greater than any of Op.109 - Op.111, none of which ever acquired any nicknames, and Op.111 especially is justly popular among concert pianists? Op.110 is popular with amateurs because it is easy but it still never acquired a nickname, though one could justifiably call it 'Fugal apotheosis' (sorry, it's my bedtime and I can't think of something more colorful).
I didn't say the Waldstein was greater than the three sonatas you mentioned.

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The sonata 8 was published with the title "Grande Sonate Pathétique". So initially it was not a name that was given by Beethoven, but a descriptive adjective of the content of the sonata. The adjective does suit the content quite well. We dont know who had the idea to add the adjective, is it Beethoven who intentionally conceived the sonata with a predefined idea or is it more likely an invention of the editor Hoffmeister to boost the sales ? In any case what was an indicative adjective that described the content soon became a nickname of the sonata itself.


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
If the Waldstein hadn't been such a great piece, would it have gone by that name just because Beethoven dedicated the work to him?

There are other works that Beethoven dedicated to Count Waldstein. No one knows why this particular one got the name. BTW in Italy they call it "Aurora".


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Originally Posted by Sidokar
There are other works that Beethoven dedicated to Count Waldstein. No one knows why this particular one got the name. BTW in Italy they call it "Aurora".
The way nicknames stuck can be curious. After all, Op.101 also has the epiphet Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, but no-one, not even in Germany, calls it the Hammerklavier. And anyway, if we translate "Hammerklavier" properly to 'fortepiano', it doesn't sound quite so impressive.....

As for dedications, B dedicated many works to his fondest patron, the Archduke Rudolf - including the Hammerklavier (the one and only), the Les Adieux (which should properly be called by its German name Das Lebewohl, but we Anglo-Saxons love our French, if not the French whistle) and the Emperor Concerto - which is only called thus in English-speaking nations -, but only his greatest and grandest piano trio is named thus (here, appropriately, with the pianist playing on a Hammerklavier thumb):


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I agree that likely it's the piece that grabbed people's attention first, then were named, which led to more fame. The name is probably a biproduct of its popularity, but then the name also kept the piece relevant over the following decades.


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Liszt called his 3rd étude de concert:'the one in D-flat major'. He was right.


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