What’s In A Name? Understanding Classical Music Titles

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Everyone from seasoned performers to those just discovering classical music has had questions about how works get their titles. Did composers like Beethoven nickname their own symphonies? What is an opus number? Why do Mozart pieces have a “K” listed at the end of the title? Why is it confusing to say you love “the Minuet” or “the Adagio”?

Today, we’re going to try to answer some of these questions by explaining classical music naming conventions.

Composition Type:

Symphony, sonata, piano quintet, concerto – these are all composition types. Classical music composers wrote works in many of these forms and often the same composer wrote multiple pieces in the same type. This is why saying you enjoy listening to “the Serenade” or “the Concerto” or “the Mazurka” is confusing. Even using the composer name often does not narrow down which piece you are referring to. For example, it is not enough to say “Beethoven Symphony”. He wrote 9 of them!

Generic Name:

Compositions often have a generic name that can describe the work’s composition type, key signature, featured instruments, etc. This could be something as simple as Symphony No. 2 (meaning the 2nd symphony written by that composer), Minuet in G major (minuet being a type of dance), or Concerto for Two Cellos (an orchestral work featuring two cellos as soloists). The problem with referring to a piece by the generic name, even along with the composer, is that, again, that may not enough to identify the exact work. While Symphony No. 2 by Mahler is sufficient since it is his only 2nd symphony, Minuet by Bach is not since he wrote many minuets over his lifetime.

Non-Generic Names:

Non-generic names, or classical music nicknames and sub-titles, are often more well-known than generic names. They can even be so famous that the composer name is not necessary to clarify which piece you are referring to. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Trout Quintet, and the Surprise Symphony are all examples of non-generic names.

Who gave classical music works their non-generic names? Sometimes the composer added a subsidiary name to a work. These are called sub-titles and are considered part of the work’s formal title. The sub-title for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor is “Pathetique”.

A nickname, on the other hand, is not part of the official title and was not assigned by the composer. It is a name that has become associated with a work. For example, Bach’s “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments” are commonly known as the Brandenburg Concertos because they were presented as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg. The name was given by Bach’s biographer, Philipp Spitta, and it stuck. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 earned the nickname Jupiter most likely because of its exuberant energy and grand scale. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is known as the Unfinished Symphony because he died and left it with only 2 complete movements.

In many cases, referring to a work by its non-generic name, especially with the composer name, is enough to identify a piece. Most classical music fans know which work you are referring to when you say “Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony”.

Non-Numeric Titles:

Some classical compositions do not have a generic name, but rather a non-numeric title. These are formal titles given by the composer that do not follow a sequential numeric naming convention. Works that fall into this category include the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz, Handel’s Messiah, and Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Opus Number:

Opus numbers, abbreviated op., are used to distinguish compositions with similar titles and indicate the chronological order of production. Some composers assigned numbers to their own works, but many were inconsistent in their methods. As a result, some composers’ works are referred to with a catalogue number assigned by musicologists. The various catalogue-number systems commonly used include Köchel-Verzeichnis for Mozart (K) and Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV).

Other Famous Examples Of Classical Music Nicknames and Sub-Titles

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 – sub-titled the Pastoral Symphony: While many of Beethoven’s works have nicknames, “Pastoral” is the only name intentionally given by the composer. In fact, the full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.”
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  • Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major (H. 1/94) – nicknamed the Surprise Symphony: Named because of the sudden fortissimo chord at the end of the opening theme of the second movement. The movement is otherwise played very quietly (or piano).
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  • Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 – nicknamed the Organ Symphony: This is not truly a symphony for organ. However, two sections out of the four use the pipe organ prominently.
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  • Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 – nicknamed the Trout Quintet: The name did not originate with Schubert. It is known by the more popular name because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s Lied “Die Forelle” (The Trout) – a German poem sung to music.
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  • Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5 – nicknamed the Black Keys Etude: This study for solo piano earned its name because of the right hand triplet figure that is played exclusively on the black keys.
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  • Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95: From the New World – nicknamed the New World Symphony: The New World Symphony is a nickname although Dvorak did include the “New world” in the title. It was written during the composer’s time in New York City and purportedly incorporates his reflections on living in America.
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  • Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525 – nicknamed Eine kleine Nachtmusik: The popular title, literally “a little night music” in German, comes from an entry Mozart made in his personal catalog that began, “Eine kleine Nacht-Musik”. In this case, Mozart was most likely not giving the piece a special name, but rather entering in his records that he had written a little serenade.