Ivy Allie


Interlude 1: Understanding Titles

As you’ve probably noticed, titles of classical works are typically long and complicated. However, in practice they’re not too difficult to understand. Let’s look at two examples:

In both cases the first clause should be clear enough: the composer’s name and lifespan.

This is followed by the name of the work. Bear in mind that a “work” of classical music is usually made up of multiple “movements,” which in most recordings are separated into separate tracks. Thus a work or composition will likely have one title, while its individual movements have other titles. These titles may be evocative or only numerical. Evocative titles are usually kept in their original language; in the case of the Mozart work above, the title is in German, and is generally translated as “A Little Night Music.” Numerical titles, on the other hand, are translated to the language of the audience. Most classical works are titled generically, with a declaration of the category (“Piano Concerto”), its specific number (“No. 5”), and its key (“in E-flat Major”). These works are effectively untitled, and their designations serve to differentiate them from each other.

The title of the work is followed by an opus number or catalog number. This number generally refers to a sequential ordering of all of a composer’s works. Opus numbers, represented by the abbreviation Op., are generally assigned by the composer at the time of composition. Exactly what constitutes an “opus” has never been defined, though, which has resulted in many works that lack opus numbers or share a number with another work. Some composers, including Mozart, didn’t use opus numbers at all. These failures of the system have led to the creation of catalog systems for those composers whose works are not logically numbered. In the case of Mozart, works are ordered by their “K” number, named for Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, the man who created the first definitive catalog of Mozart’s works. Searching by opus or catalog number is generally the best way to find specific works, since they leave little room for ambiguity.

In the case of the Beethoven piece, we get an additional bit of information: the work’s “nickname.” This is a name by which a piece has become known, though in general it is not one used by the composer. Nicknames are coined by publishers and critics, and if a piece becomes popular they tend to stick and become familiar. Any classical music enthusiast will recognize the name “Emperor concerto,” but “Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5” is less recognizable. Other examples of familiar nicknames include the “Moonlight sonata” (more accurately Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, particularly the first movement), and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” (“emotion-filled”) symphony (No. 6). An unusual counterexample can be found in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which is far more identifiable as “Beethoven’s Fifth” than it is by its occasional nickname, “Fate.”

Finally we come to the movement title. This takes the form of a Roman numeral which identifies the order in which movements should be played, followed by a brief description in Italian. The practice of using Italian terms in musical notation is a tradition begun by the prominence of Italian composers in the Renaissance and early Baroque. (Some contemporary composers have abandoned the Italian system in favor of their own languages.) In the Mozart example, the description reads Menuetto: Allegro, a fast minuet (a type of formal dance). In the Beethoven example, the description reads Adagio un poco mosso, slow and a bit smooth.