Music, Words, Meaning, Titles, Critics, and Other Fascinating Things,

Allan Kozinn has a really interesting piece up about titles of pieces by composers. I don't have, really, any problems with it; however, I do have some comments. Also, some pictures that are fun to look at. As usual.

During an interview segment of a Making Music concert at Zankel Hall last week the composer George Crumb was asked whether the titles of the first and last movements of his “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” — “Vocalise (... for the Beginning of Time)” and “Sea-Nocturne (... for the End of Time)” — were meant to be as ominous as they sounded.

Are whale sounds really ominous? I think the larger question would be the connection of the pieces as a cycle, or something. Although the End of Time I suppose is somewhat off-putting.

“They’re just poetic titles,” Mr. Crumb

said, brushing off the question. “Sometimes people take composers’ titles too seriously."

The titles don't mean anything? Words...don't mean anything? Does the music mean anything? Oh, dear. Paging Mr Derrida...

And whose fault is that?

Um, the composer's?

When listeners encounter these titles in their program books or on CD covers, it’s only natural that they conclude that the title is meant to tell them something about the nature of the work. But logical as that assumption is, it is often confounded these days.

Let's see where this goes. There are many things at work, here. (Is there a metaphor in music criticism?)

A few weeks before the Crumb program, inapt titles were thick on the ground

On the ground?

at a Da Capo Chamber Players concert. A shimmering but increasingly vehement work by Chen Yi seemed far too forceful to be called “Happy Rain on a Spring Night.”

Too vehement to be happy, I guess.

And “Cloud Forest” seemed far too misty a title for Conor Brown’s zesty, off-kilter work, with its strands of American and Turkish folk music.

More zesty than misty, therefore: inapt title (on the ground).

At a recent concert by the Cassatt Quartet, Joan Tower offered some insight into how little a title can tell us about what a work actually means to a composer. She said that her first quartet was a struggle, and that she originally thought of calling it “Nightmare.” But thinking the title was too negative, she changed it to “Night Fields” and wrote a program note describing “a cold windy night in a wheat field lit up by a bright full moon, with waves of fast moving colors rolling over the fields” to explain the fanciful new title. But the harmonically prickly writing at the work’s heart suggested that she had been right the first time.

See, this is where I agree with Mr Kozinn. The "meaning" of the music, or even the images or emotions it is intended to evoke, is affected by the title. This Tower

quote makes the whole notion of her title seem disingenuous. And therefore ultimately irrelevant to the "meaning" of the music (sorry for the scare quotes).

Perhaps the notion of giving a work a title makes composers feel awkward. Through much of classical music’s history, the titles of secular instrumental works were usually just formal descriptions (symphony, quartet, concerto), and when titles were affixed (“Moonlight,” for example) they were usually a publisher’s idea. Publishers understood that titles, and the imagery they evoked, could help move copies; composers were in it for the art.

This is true. Many popular classical/romantic works that are well-known by their nicknames were not nicknamed (is that a word?) by the composer.

Even so, Baroque composers sometimes used titles to tell listeners what their works were about, and in the case of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” four descriptive sonnets were translated into music phrase by phrase.

True again; however it should be noted that in the Baroque (especially in Germany and Italy) musical composition was closely tied in with theories of classical (Roman, not Beethoven) rhetoric, and the connection between words and music was regarded very differently than today, or even the Romantic period. (Crap. I should be more consistent with my capitalization. Oh, well.)

Early in the 19th century composers with wild imaginations, like Robert Schumann, weren’t shy about using titles that informed listeners about outlandish subtexts — battles between art-hating Philistines and artistic Davids for example — which the music’s impulses fully supported. By the late 19th century titles were plentiful. The vast majority of Liszt’s piano works have descriptive names (the B minor Sonata is an obvious exception), and few would dispute that the music of each section of Mussorgsky’s

“Pictures at an Exhibition” lives up to its title, in some cases more vividly than the Victor Hartmann sketch that inspired it.

Yeah, programmaticism (is that a word?) became very pervasive in the 19th century; it is an interesting exercise to play pieces with programs for people twice: Once before and once after they know the title, and observe their reactions to the "meaning" of the work.

The French Impressionists, though harmonic revolutionaries, retained the notion that a title should tell listeners something about what’s going on in the piece. You can’t hear “Le Gibet” (“The Gallows”), the central movement of Ravel’s

“Gaspard de la Nuit,” without conjuring the bleak image of a hanged man, slowly swinging as the sun sets and a bell tolls, and Debussy

was a master of evocative work names.

Would we understand that "La Mer" was about the sea without the aid of the title? That is, I think, the essence of the problem.

To an extent composers began thinking differently about titles in the mid-20th century, when some modernist composers swept them away as remnants of the emotional and painterly excesses of Romanticism.


For a time names became either mathematical or self-consciously blank: “Octagon,”


“Synchronism,” “Groups”


or “Polymorphia".

Translations unnecessary, but point taken.

But every now and then composers cottoned on to what 19th-century publishers knew: that titles sell. In 1960 the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote an intense, thoroughly abstract work for 52 strings, which he unsentimentally called “8’37.” ” It wasn’t until he had heard the work performed that he came up with the title by which it is known today, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”

Ah, again, herein lies the rub. Clearly a timing and an ode give the listener different ideas about what the piece they're about to hear...means.

When Mr. Penderecki

told me this, over lunch about a decade ago, I was stunned. I had always heard the work, with its searing, dissonant string clusters, as a cry of anguish, a composer’s contemplation of the devastation unleashed by the atomic bomb. But when I asked Mr. Penderecki how the title came to him, he first said, “I don’t know,” and then looked down at his paella.

Good anecdote. Paging Mr Derrida, again.

“I was surrounded by propaganda against the American bomb,” he said after a moment’s silence. “Living at that time, you know. I did it. And because of the dedication to Hiroshima, certainly, people found this interesting. Because I have other pieces for strings that are not so well known.”

Did the music "mean" something before he wrote it than after he changes its name?

That the title was an opportunistic afterthought, not an indication of Mr. Penderecki’s feelings while writing the work, apparently doesn’t matter.

It doesn't?

Two summers ago, when John Harbison’s “Abu Ghraib” had its premiere at Tanglewood, Mr. Harbison presided over a panel discussion about political works and cited the Penderecki as a predecessor. When I caught up with him during the intermission and told him about my conversation with Mr. Penderecki, Mr. Harbison said he had heard that too. Yet he still regarded “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” as Exhibit A in a discussion of politically inspired works.

That is illogical, Mr Harbison.

Younger composers are often more whimsical with their titles. Michael Torke seemingly mined a Crayola box for the titles of his most famous works and forestalled critical argument: Who is to say that “Ecstatic Orange” doesn’t sound like that?

Me. I do.

Caleb Burhans keeps a list of lines from films, television shows and advertisements, as well as random overheard phrases that catch his ear, pinned to the wall over his composing desk and has drawn titles like “Iceman Stole the Sun” and “You Could Hear It Touch the Viking” from it.

I actually like the Dada/Postmodern aspect of pointless piece names; it fingers the very issue of musical meaning being hashed out here.

Then there’s my favorite: David Lang’s “Eating Living Monkeys,” a title that the music, thankfully, does not live up to.

How could it?

But as amusing or provocative as titles can be, they inevitably create expectations. And those expectations enlist the listener as a participant in the performance. It’s hard not to do some mental gymnastics to square the titles with the music.

In theory a title ups the stakes by proposing an image that the composer must match with fresh, surprising music that avoids any clich├ęs the title may suggest. So applying a title frivolously is cheating. If composers are going to bother with titles at all, they might as well be as serious about them as Schumann and Ravel were.

Interesting issue. Good piece, and food for thought.


docker said...

Did the music "mean"
something before he
wrote it than after
he changes its name?

Great sentence. I'd like to use it as a title of my next piece.

Sator Arepo said...

Ugh. You got me. Well played, sir.

Gustav said...

I've always thought of composition titles as having little more than the power to annoy. They almost never inform us about the piece -- good titles tend to be innocuous if sometimes slightly clever (although, I tend to find that composers are much more impressed with their lingual skills than I am). I've never found myself understanding a piece better, or enjoying it more because of the title. However, bad titles cause immediate snickering, eye-rolling and engender a bit of antipathy towards the upcoming piece. It's a bit of a lose-lose for composers on that level.

I have no solutions here, because there is no formula I've discovered for a good title. I've always argued that music does not have any communicable meaning, so there's probably no danger in naming a piece almost anything -- how can I be wrong? But, it's probably best that most titles remain understated and perhaps even cautious.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, you're going to interview a guy about titling who's written a piece titled "Abu Ghraib?"

No offense, John- nothing annoys me more than using themes because they're in the public eye already. Like the movie "Sweeney Todd"-- can't someone come with an original musical designed for screen? Are we we so a.)talentless or b.) insecure! Can you really remake the "TCM?" Would you want to!

Good to see you guys up again.

Anonymous said...

I said "we we." Huh-huh, huh-huh.

docker said...

I just posted this. Both my piece and my screed have been in the works for some time - since long before the Kozinn article.

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