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What's in a name?

Rick Rogers Published: April 24, 2013

Are you familiar with the names William Sidney Porter, H.H. Munro, Ethel Zimmerman or Richard Jenkins? You probably know them better by their pen or stage names: O. Henry, Saki, Ethel Merman and Richard Burton. Classical music is similarly overrun with nicknames, including Winter Daydreams, Babi Yar, Rhenish and Reformation. Those designations are far easier to remember than Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth, Schumann’s Third and Mendelssohn’s Fifth.

What’s not commonly known is that most composers generally had nothing to do with “naming” their compositions. In many instances, such nicknames were appended by a performer or publisher. Some musical nicknames are logical. Mozart’s “Paris” symphony (No. 31 in D) was written for a performance in that city in 1778. Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata (No. 21 in C) was dedicated to Count Waldstein.

Felix Mendelssohn’s visits to Scotland and Italy inspired his Third and Fourth symphonies, better known today as the “Scottish” and “Italian.” Antonin Dvorak’s visit to the United States prompted the composition of his Ninth Symphony, better known as “From the New World.” Other nicknames have resulted from a particular instrument being prominently featured. Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony is usually referred to as the “Organ” symphony because of its prominent use of that instrument.

Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat” in turn became known as the “Triangle” concerto because of the instrument’s prominent, some say unrelenting, part. Chopin’s Op. 28 “Prelude in D-Flat” took the name “Raindrop Prelude.” It’s not clear whether the patter of raindrops was the inspiration for Chopin, but the sound is unmistakable. Other works that borrow sounds from nature include Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, known as “The Hen” because of a clucking sound in the first movement; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is called “The Pastoral” because of its depictions of everything from bird calls to a thunderstorm.

Two other symphonies by Haydn (No. 45 in F-Sharp Minor, No. 94 in G) took on the nicknames “Farewell” and “Surprise.” To convince his employer that his musicians needed a vacation, Haydn devised the ploy of having his players leave the stage a few at a time until only two were left to play the final measures. Prince Esterhazy got the idea. The Symphony No. 94 earned its title because of an unexpected fortissimo chord in the slow movement. Rumor had it that the loud chord was inserted to wake audience members who nodded off. Haydn always denied the claim.

The slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 was featured prominently in the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan.” This work has since become known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto. In 1944, Aaron Copland collaborated with choreographer Martha Graham on a piece he called simply “Ballet for Martha.” It would later be dubbed “Appalachian Spring.” Copland often told of listeners relating how they could hear the sounds of Appalachia in his music, something he never considered. But the name stuck.

There are at least two cases in which works by different composers feature the same nickname: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 both go by the name “Pathetique.” Similarly, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Howard Hanson’s Second are known as the “Romantic.”

With so many generic titles floating about in the world of classical music (Symphony in D, Piano Concerto in E-Flat, Sonata in C), these mnemonic devices are often a big help in differentiating one well-known composition from another.