A Look At Female Classical Music Composers

 

Depending on the instrument you play or your passion for classical music, you may have heard the works of one or a few female composers. Pianists, for example, may know of or even have played Clara Schumann. However, the vast majority of the world has never heard of the likes of Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Florence Price, and that is quite unfortunate.

Women have actually made significant contributions to the classical music world. However, they remain on unequal footing with their male counterparts. So for International Women’s Day, here’s a look at some notable and some forgotten women composers throughout history.

Clara Schumann - Women ComposersClara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was not only the wife of composer Robert Schumann, but also one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. Her career began at a young age. At age 11, she went on a concert tour of various European cities and gave her first solo concert in Leipzig. Later, during her marriage to Robert, she met Johannes Brahms and not only helped encourage his career, but also was the first to perform publicly any Brahms work. She premiered several of his works during her career including the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.

She also began composing at a young age. In fact, she wrote her piano concerto when she was just fourteen and performed it at age sixteen (with Mendelssohn conducting). As she grew older and focused on other responsibilities, she found it difficult to find time to compose. Her output decreased greatly when she reached 36 years old. Her works include piano pieces, the aforementioned piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, songs, and three Romances for violin and piano.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn - Female ComposersFanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn was a pianist and composer. She was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister and the pair shared a deep love of music. Felix arranged to have some of Fanny’s songs published under his name, due to prevailing attitudes toward women publishing music, which actually led to an embarrassing moment. Queen Victoria received Felix at Buckingham Palace and expressed her intention of singing her favorite of his songs. He confessed it was actually by Fanny.

Fanny Mendelssohn was very prolific. She composed over 460 pieces including a piano trio, books of piano solo pieces and songs, and a cycle of pieces depicting the months of the year titled Das Jahr. This last work was written on colored sheets of paper with illustrations by her husband, Wilhelm.

Fanny passed away after suffering a stroke while rehearsing one of her brother Felix’s oratorios. Felix completed his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor in memory of her.

 

Louise Farrenc - Women Classical ComposersLouise Farrenc (1804-1875): Louise Farrenc is undoubtedly France’s first female composer. Born into a family of sculptors, she showed early talent in music and studied under such masters as Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel. She married a flute student and together they gave concerts throughout France. The couple opened a publishing house together, Éditions Farrenc, which became one of France’s leading music publishers for 40 years.

Like other female composers around her time, she was a pianist from a young age and wrote many works for the instrument. However, while she wrote exclusively for piano until 1830, she expanded her range and wrote works for orchestra starting in 1834. She wrote 3 symphonies, a wind sextet, vocal works, choral works, and chamber music in addition to music for piano. Unlike Schumann and Mendelssohn, Farrenc’s works remained largely forgotten until the late 20th century during a surge in interest in women composers. In December 2013, Farrenc was the subject of the BBC Radio Three “Composer of the Week” program.

 

Rachel Portman - Female ComposersRachel Portman (1960-present): Rachel Portman is best known as a composer of film scores and, unlike our previous composers, is still writing today. She was born in Surrey, England and became interested in music at a young age. She started composing at the age of 14 and subsequently studied music at Worcester College, Oxford. During her time in school, she started experimenting with writing music for student films and theater productions. After that, she wrote music for drama in BBC and Channel 4 films.

Since then, she has written over 100 scores for film, TV, and theater including The Legend of Bagger Vance, Mona Lisa Smile, Emma, Benny and Joon, The Lake House, Oliver Twist, and The Duchess. Her most famous soundtrack compositions are for the movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules which was used in the Pure Michigan commercials.

Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. She won for Emma in 1996. She has also won a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on Bessie.

 

Florence Price - Woman ComposersFlorence Price (1960-present): Florence Price was not only a female composer, but also the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, her mother was a music teacher who guided her early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and published her first composition at the age of 11. After graduating high school at 14, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. She graduated with honors in 1906.

After college, she moved back to Little Rock and was married. They moved to Chicago after a series of racial incidents. It was in Chicago where Florence entered her most fulfilling period of composition. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with leading teachers and published four pieces for piano. Unfortunately, financial struggles led to a divorce and Florence became a single mother. To pay the bills, she worked as an organist for silent films and composed songs for radio ads (under a pen name). She submitted compositions for Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won first prize with her Symphony in E minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.

Florence Price’s music incorporates elements of African-American spirituals, Southern themes, and inspiration from blues, African-American church music, and modern urban sounds.

 

Amy Beach - Female Classical Music ComposersAmy Beach (1867-1944): Amy Beach was also a pianist as well as a composer. She is considered the first successful American female composer of art music. She was born a prodigy, able to sing 40 songs accurately by age one. She learned to sing counter-melody to her mother’s singing at age 2 and by age 3, she was reading. She composed simple waltzes at age 5. At age 14, Amy received a year of formal training in composition.

Her performance debut was when she was 16. She played until she was married at which time she agreed to limit her performance to two public recitals per year. She devoted herself to composition. However, her husband disapproved of her studying composition with a teacher. So other than her one year of formal training at 14, she was a self-taught composer. She collected every book she could find on theory, composition, and orchestration.

Her first success as a composer came with the performance of her Mass in E-flat major by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra. It was the first piece the group performed composed by a woman. After that, she wrote many other works including her Piano Concerto, which she premiered as soloist with the Boston Symphony, and the Gaelic Symphony. Her compositions include symphonic works, choral works, chamber music, solo piano music, and songs (of which she wrote about 150).

 

Cecile Chaminade - women composersCécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Cécile Chaminade was a female composer in France whose music was largely financially successful. Born in Paris, she studied music with her mother at first and then piano, violin, and music composition later with other notable names. She began composing at a young age and when she was eight years old, she played some of her music for Georges Bizet who was impressed.

Cécile wrote character pieces for piano and salon songs – all of which were published. Many of her piano compositions received good reviews from critics and were favorites in Europe and America. In fact, when she traveled to the United States in 1908, she discovered that her Scarf Dance and the Ballet No. 1 were in the music libraries of many piano music lovers. Other notable compositions include her Concertstück in C sharp minor for piano and orchestra, ballet music for Callirhoë, and her Flute Concertino in D major. The latter remains one of the most popular of her works performed today.

In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.

 

We realize there are many other women we could list here. Follow the links below for more information on these and other women composers.

The Great Women Composers – Classic FM
10 Female Composers You Should Know
18 Women Composers You Should Know
Five Forgotten Female Composers – BBC

 

Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings

 

Duke Ellington - composers of Three Black KingsDuke Ellington. The name immediately brings to mind jazz. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, his legacy as an accomplished pianist and bandleader lives on today. But do you know he was also a composer of symphonic music? In fact, it was his inventive use of the orchestra that many point to as a reason that jazz was elevated to an art form on par with more traditional music genres.

Among his symphonic works are pieces like Black, Brown, and Beige Suite, Harlem, For Jazz Band and Orchestra, New World a-Comin’, and Les Trois Rois Noirs or, in English, Three Black Kings. This last piece was actually Ellington’s final work, composed at the time of his death in 1974. While laying in his hospital bed, he reportedly gave his son, Mercer, final instructions on how to complete the work. However, how much detail he gave is not clear. Mercer once lamented, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy, because he left me no clues.”

Mercer Ellington completed the work and the result is a lush and alluring piece infused with African motifs, a warm down-home feeling, and the unmistakable jazz sound that made Duke Ellington famous. The New York Times noted about the work’s premiere, “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom…moves the spectator” and The Daily News hailed the work as “An intensely moving vision…”.

The title of the work refers to the 3 movements, each depicting a different “king”: Balthazar the black king of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington’s good friend Dr. Martin Luther King. Mercer Ellington explained that his father, “intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King and he decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. Primitivity, the opening movement, represents [Balthazar,] the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that, then the dirge for Dr. King. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings Ellington saw in the Cathedral del Mar in Barcelona.”

Come hear Three Black Kings performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on February 25 at 7:30 PM. with a special performance by DU Lamont School of Music’s Art Bouton.

 

Get To Know “The Black Mozart” – Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

 

Composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier De Saint-Georges

Name: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

His family name is often misspelled as “Boulogne”. He is sometimes referred to as “The Black Mozart”.

Born: December 25, 1745

Occupations: Composer, champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, a leading symphony in Paris. Was also a colonel in the French Revolution.

Other Interests: Dancing and ladies. He was a fine dancer, being invited to numerous balls and salons (and boudoirs) of highborn ladies.

Compositions: 3 sets of string quartets, 2 symphonies, 8 symphonie-concertantes, 6 operas comiques, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon concerto, a clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, six violin duos, and a number of songs.

Notable Facts:

  • He is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy planter on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and his mother was an African slave. He was born on the island and moved to France as an early teenager.
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  • Upon graduation from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard which is where he acquired the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
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  • He was such an amazing fencer that he was called “the god of arms”. At the age of 19, he had only suffered one defeat in a serious fencing match.
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  • Not much is known of his early music training although several works were dedicated to or written for him including two Lolli concertos and Gossec’s six string trios. His first composition is a set of six string quartets inspired by Haydn.
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  • He was a skilled violinist, but he also played the harpsichord.
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  • He was an early Black Mason. He conducted the Concert des Amateurs, a top Paris orchestra, for years, but after the American Revolution, the organization suffered financial losses. The Masons helped him revive the orchestra as part of the Loge Olympique, renamed Le Concert Olympique, which was an exclusive Freemason Lodge.
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  • He became fascinated by the stage, abandoning writing instrumental music in favor of opera around 1776. However, he suffered a serious setback when his nomination to be the next director of the Paris Opera was halted by a petition from three of its leading ladies. To avoid embarrassing the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, he withdrew his name. He went on to write operas and direct the Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater instead.
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  • He volunteered to serve during the French Revolution. He joined the Garde Nationale, but even his duties couldn’t prevent him from giving concerts. He built an orchestra and reportedly gave concerts every week.
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  • In 1794, he became colonel of the first cavalry brigade of “men of color” – the St. Georges’ Legion – which was also the first all black regiment in Europe. He lead 1,000 volunteers of color and halted what became known as “The Treason of Dumouriez”.
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  • He was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 months and threatened with execution after returning from military duties in Sant-Domingue (now Haiti). He was released and lived in semi-retirement, unfortunately with health problems. He did, however, become even more devoted to his violin during this time saying, “Never before did I play it so well”. He died in 1799 in Paris aged 53.
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  • President John Adams called him, “the most accomplished man in Europe”.

Below are some of his compositions you can listen to today. Or, to hear his music performed live, be sure to get tickets to the Parker Symphony’s upcoming concert “Celebrating Black Composers Throughout The Centuries”.

Symphony Op. 11, No. 1 in D major

Violin Concerto in G major, Op.2, No. 1

Quartet No. 3, Op. 14 in F minor

 

Joplin’s Treemonisha – Rediscovered For A New Generation

 

Scott Joplin - Composer of Treemonisha You may have heard of Scott Joplin and you may associate him with ragtime pieces such as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”, but did you know that he wrote two operas? One is titled “A Guest of Honor”. The other, “Treemonisha”, has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”. Although sometimes referred to as the “ragtime opera”, this is a misnomer because the rag style is used only sparingly. Instead, the score and libretto follow the European opera form with conventional arias, ensembles, and choruses.

Treemonisha is the name of the opera’s main character – a heroine who is kidnapped by a band of magicians. She eventually leads her community against the conjurers who prey on their superstition, teaching them the value of education and the liability of ignorance. It is said that the main character may have been inspired by Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who herself was educated, well-read, and an activist for women and African-American rights.

While the story in the opera is entertaining and the music enchanting, the story behind the work and its performance is truly fascinating. It was completed in 1910. However, Joplin had to pay for a piano-vocal score to be published the following year. He sent a copy to the American Musician and Art Journal which wrote a glowing, full-page review of the work calling it, “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style)”.

Unfortunately, the endorsement wasn’t enough. The opera was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime. Its only performance was a concert read-through in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where Joplin played the piano. This was also paid for by Joplin.

Treemonisha“Treemonisha” was subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970 and performed for an entirely new generation. Excerpts were performed in 1971 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but it was the world premiere in 1972 that really brought this amazing work back into the spotlight. A joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was directed by the famous African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. It was well received by critics and audiences alike.

Since then, it has been performed by the Houston Grand Opera, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and throughout Europe including several times in Germany. You can hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform the Overture from “Treemonisha” on February 25, 2017 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO. Discover this beautiful and once-forgotten piece for yourself next month.

 

William Grant Still: A Man Of Many Firsts

William Grant Still Portrait

 

When it comes to classical music, William Grant Still isn’t exactly a household name and that’s quite unfortunate because his music is truly captivating. I vividly remember the first time I heard his works. I had turned on CPR Classical one night a few years ago so my oldest daughter and I could play and listen to some good music.

Although I intended it to be in the background, I found myself really listening and wondering who wrote this amazing stuff. I could place the era – 20th century with some interesting jazz rhythms and influences – but I just couldn’t put my finger on the composer.

One check of the CPR site gave me the answer – Still.

And after further reading, I discovered there is much more to William Grant Still. He is much more than just a 20th century composer. He is also a man of many firsts who broke barriers.

  • He was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra – the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.
  • He conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 becoming the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south.
  • His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first symphony written by an African American for a leading US orchestra. It was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Hear the PSO perform it in February.
  • His opera Troubled Island was the first by an African American that was performed by a major company – the New York City Opera
  • He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national US Television. His A Bayou Legend premiered on PBS in 1981.

Still was prolific, writing 8 operas and numerous symphonies and ballets. He worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later as an arranger of music for radio and film including movies like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. When looking at his body of work, it’s not hard to see how he earned the nickname “Dean of Afro-American Composers”.

Despite the fact that he is not as well known as say Beethoven, his works live on in performances by everyone from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The Parker Symphony Orchestra will be performing his 1st Symphony on February 25. Purchase tickets here.

 

Finlandia: The Secret Protest Piece

Helsinki

Helsinki, Finland – courtesy of Fodors


Finlandia, one of Sibelius’ most famous compositions, is often referred to as a tone poem. A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music with only one movement that evokes a poem, story, painting, or other non-musical source. In the case of Finlandia, it was one of seven pieces that served as an accompaniment to a tableau that depicted episodes from Finnish history. It premiered July 2, 1900 in Helsinki.

But it was much more than just a historical tribute. It was secretly a protest against censorship from the Russian Empire. Prior to 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire. Most of the piece features rousing music that is meant to evoke the national struggle of the Finnish people. After that, a serene melody can be heard. Named the Finlandia Hymn, this section is Sibelius’ own creation that was arranged later for solo performance. The hymn has become one of Finland’s most important national songs with words written for is in 1941.

To avoid Russian censorship while protesting it, Finlandia was performed under alternative names. Some of these include Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March.

Finlandia can be heard prominently in the film score for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

It will also be performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on October 29. Purchase tickets here.

 

10 Facts About Dvorak That You May Not Know

 

Dvorak Portrait You may know Antonín Dvořák as the composer of the much-loved and often-played Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ (aka the New World Symphony), but there is more to the man than just his most famous work. Although his time in America is well-known thanks to the aforementioned symphony, he was actually born in a small village north of Prague and was very passionate about his homeland and its music, infusing the sounds in pieces like his Slavonic Dances.

Here are 10 others things you may not know about Dvořák.

1. He Apprenticed As a Butcher: Dvořák was the oldest of 14 children (8 who survived infancy). His father was a zither player, an innkeeper, and also a butcher. A young Antonin not only joined his father in the local band, but also in his business as an apprentice butcher. At the age of 13, he was inducted into the Butcher’s Guild of Zlonice.

2. His Grandmother Had a Pet Name For Him: Dvořák’s grandmother called him, “my little toothy” because he apparently had good teeth.

3. His First Compositions Went Unnoticed: Dvořák’s first compositions received no critical reception and no public performance. In fact, it wasn’t until Johannes Brahms’ efforts to boost his career that any of his music began to attract interest. It is said that Dvořák was so critical of himself that he burned his early works.

4. Sheet Music For The First Slavonic Dances Sold Out: In 1874, Brahms sat on a jury to award financial support to talented composers in need. It is then that he encountered Dvořák and was “visibly overcome” by his “mastery and talent”. Brahms recommended that his publisher, Simrock, publish a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. The sheet music for the 8 dances sold out in one day.

5. Dvořák Loved Trains: The composer was known to spend hours at the Franz Josef railway station in Prague, watching trains. He knew the timetable by heart and even asked his students to describe train journeys they had made. Later, when he visited America, he also took up pigeon raising and watching steamboats.

6. He Stole Pencils: In an effort to help calm Czech speakers in Austria who were upset over the banning of their language, Dvořák was appointed a member of the Austrian Senate. He came the first day in 1901, accepted the honor, stole all of the pencils at his desk because they were perfect for composing, and never showed up again.

7. He Was An Early Riser: Dvořák and his wife got up very early in the morning. When they stayed in Cambridge with composer and organist Charles Villiers Stanford, the host was surprised to find couple sitting under a tree in the garden at 6 AM.

8. A Ship Is Named For Dvořák: In 1943, an American Liberty ship in the U.S. Navy was named the USNS Antonín Dvořák in the composer’s honor.

9. There Is A Mural In His Honor In Iowa: Dvořák spent a few weeks living in Spillville, IA. It was a town of mostly Czech speaking immigrants at the time. It is there that he wrote his “American” String Quartet. Today, a mural is there in his honor.

10. He Is The Second Czech Composer To Achieve Worldwide Recognition: Dvořák is not the only Czech composer of note. Bedřich Smetana, of Má vlast and its The Moldau movement fame, first established a nationalist example during the 1848 Prague uprising.

 

Be sure to join us to hear Dvorak’s “The Water Goblin” at our “Sounds of the Deep” concert, Friday October 27 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO.

 

What Is A Symphony?

Parker Symphony Orchestra

Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you’ve probably heard a symphony or two. You may not know the names or composers, but symphonies have been featured in everything from commercials to cartoons and they are a staple in classical music.

The Symphony Defined

There are two ways to define symphony. One definition refers to a symphony orchestra, a group of musicians who perform symphonies among other works. If a friend says, “I went to the symphony last night,” they mean they went to hear an orchestra.

A symphony is also a musical work, and a great one at that. It has multiple parts called movements separated by a brief pause. The audience does not applaud between movements. One basic format is a brisk and lively first movement followed by a slow and lyrical second movement, a dancing third movement, and a virtuosic finale. There are many variations on this, however. The form has been around for more than 300 years, but it has evolved greatly over the centuries. While symphonies in the 1700’s held to a more standardized format, those of the 1800’s and beyond began to include non-traditional elements like soloists and choruses. They can also vary in the number movements. Many symphonies have 4 movements. Some have 3.

The Symphony Today

What does all of this mean for you, the listener? It means that symphonies offer something for everyone. They have a variety of tempos and styles that naturally keep you engaged. In just one piece, you can be whipped into a frenzy by a robust motif, whisked away by a lyrical melody, and inspired and amazed by a grand theme. Symphonies are actually a journey. Like a book with chapters or a play with acts, the symphony takes you through very different parts that all combine to create a satisfying whole.

Symphonies are also incredibly listenable. They offer a way to escape the everyday. They evoke images and inspire emotions. They reveal the depths of the composers’ musical thinking without telling you what to think. They give you the freedom the feel and think whatever you want based on what you are hearing.

Examples Of Great Symphonies

Since the 18th century, many composers, certainly most of the famous names, have written at least one symphony. Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak wrote 9. Haydn wrote no fewer than 107. Below is a list of some well-known and beloved works.

Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 (‘From The New World’)

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5

Mozart – Symphony No. 25

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4 (‘Italian’)

Brahms – Symphony No. 4

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (‘Choral’)

Franck – Symphony in D Minor

Saint Saëns – Symphony No. 3 (‘Organ’)

Haydn – Symphony No. 94 (‘Surprise’)

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’)

What’s In A Name? Understanding Classical Music Titles

Sheetmusic Violin

 

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.