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Classical music and its sometimes peculiar titles

Rick Rogers Published: April 29, 2013

“Are you familiar with a piece of music known as bourree?” someone asked me not long ago. I tried to explain that the term (a type of French dance) is generic. Any number of composers have written them: Bach, Handel, Chabrier, Poulenc, Britten. We never determined which melody he was trying to match with the title bourree, but it did get me thinking about the unusual, often arcane system by which musical compositions are titled.

With popular music, it’s easy. Few will confuse “Stardust” with “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “Satin Doll” with “Nights in White Satin.” Classical music, itself a misnomer given that it primarily describes a type of music written between 1750 and 1825, often clouds the issue. There are easily distinguishable titles such as “The Planets,” “The Carnival of the Animals” and “Swan Lake.” But then you run into things such as “Verklarte Nacht,” “Ma Vlast” or “Le Boeuf sur le Toit.” The situation is further complicated when discussions turn to so-and-so’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven’s, Prokofiev’s, Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler’s, Shostakovich’s, Bruckner’s? You get the idea.

Popular music may have its Top 40, but classical music – at least that which we consider Western (as opposed to Oriental) – encompasses well over four centuries. Works from the “standard” repertoire alone would require a Top 400 or 4,000. There’s no denying, however, that music titles, like book and film titles, do intrigue listeners. If your curiosity is piqued by the likes of “Wellington’s Victory,” “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” “Quiet City,” “Rugby,” “The Wasps” or “Central Park in the Dark,” spend a few bucks and indulge your ears.

Unfortunately, less descriptive titles such as “Adagio for Strings,” “Scherzo Capriccioso” or “Symphonic Dances” can’t begin to persuade as convincingly, even though their musical arguments are enormously compelling. Granted, the classical repertoire contains more than its share of clunkers as well as works that should have long since faded into oblivion. But the truly marvelous examples more than even the score. With some patience and a concentrated period of acute listening, you’ll soon be able to differentiate between a bourree and an allemande or a sarabande and a gigue.


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