Delving into the Intangibles

   Musical Titles  

“Dit-dit-dit-dah" is the famous opening motif of Beethoven's much-admired Fifth Symphony, dubbed "Fate," composed in the early 19th century. I don’t imagine the master musician expected a corona virus pandemic would sweep the world one day, but to the ears of us citizens of the 21st-century his music can sound as if an invisible, intangible "fate" is knocking at our door.

Who named the symphony "Fate"? The Fifth, as a composition, is not as heavy as all that. It sounds more like a brave song for a Roman emperor marching with his army through a grand triumphal arch. It is nearly an allegro, powerful and rather bright; as I hear it, the final movement conveys the energy of heading out to do battle again.

If a piece of music does not have a title given by the composer there should be as many interpretations as there are listeners, allowing us to enjoy it in multiple ways, through the “intangibles” of imagination and emotion, depending on how we feel at a particular moment. As an innocent, daredevil musical amateur, I listen in that way.

Some people say the title given to a piece of music is its "pet name" or "nickname." This is very interesting: I suppose it is a kind of nickname. Performers and critics use such nicknames, for convenience sake, more often than we might think. They certainly offer interpretative clues. There are, for example, many Chopin waltzes, Op. 64, and "Waltz of a Puppy" that are easier to listen to because of their informal titles.

Musical impressionists such as Debussy and Fauré employ a style of music that eschews the traditional tonality of the Romantic school and emphasizes the expression of moods and atmosphere, more fuzzy and gentle. On the other hand, their music often bears direct and specific titles such as "Sea,” “Waves,” “Clouds,” or “Moon." In the case of Richard Wagner, did he and his wife Cosima––a strong personality––dream up the titles for his music by putting their two rather large heads together? Certainly, a title bestowed by the composer––a title he or she has strongly committed to––is inviolable, and no room exists for anything like a nickname.

When Gustav Mahler attached the title "Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) to his composition for voice and orchestra it infuriated his wife Alma, who protested to her husband: “How insensitive you are! Our child is not dead yet.” But four years after completing this work, as fate would have it, Mahler suddenly lost his daughter. It proved a prophetic title.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth was originally supposed to carry the title "Tragedy," but the composer didn't like it. He was eventually convinced to accept the name “Pathétique.”  

And one more mystery: Why is Dvorak's Eighth Symphony called "English." Many regard it as an unmistakably Slavic piece. The reason for the name: the score was first published in England.

It might be an interesting approach to pay strict attention to musical titles. From now on, when I listen to a piece of music, I will try to keep in mind the title, and ponder, why was it so named, does it match the tune, and who named it? And for pieces having no title, just a number, it might be fun to imagine and choose my own titles.

I think music holds the most beautiful of intangible powers that touches our heart for an instant, and then disappears into the heavens. I am having more and more fun seeking to expand my world through music, making the fullest use of my emotions and fantasy, those preciously intangible things: an unexpected gift of my corona-enforced confinement.

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