Obsessed with names

I’m performing two recitals for Portland Piano Solo series this weekend. I don’t believe a pianist couldn’t imagine more sublime repertoire: the two concerts feature works by Beethoven and Debussy. Each concert includes a book of Préludes by Debussy and two sonatas by Beethoven, the Moonlight and the Les Adieux on the first, and the Sonata Op. 54 and the Appassionata on the second. Curiously, all of these Beethoven sonatas have titles and as for the Préludes, their titles are truly an intriguing case.

Debussy and titles

Debussy wasn’t the first composer to compose a series of preludes without them being “preludes” to nothing other than the following prelude. Unique to his preludes, in addition to the music of course, was the manner in which he situated the individual titles of Préludes at the end of each piece in the score. It’s almost as if the pieces became “preludes” to their own titles, or, on a more serious note, it is as if Debussy had followed the advice of the symbolist guru, Stéphane Mallarmé: “To name an object [in the title] is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which is meant to unfold little by little.”

These “poems” by Debussy are descriptive to say the least. Listening to the Submerged Catherdal or the Serenade Interrupted, it is easy to overlook how important it was for Debussy to hold on to a sense of musical non-specifity. There are preludes, though, which are less specifically descriptive and instead convey something of a mood: Dead Leaves and Bruyères, the former quoting the title of a poetry collection by Georges Turpin and the latter (perhaps) dwelling on impressions on a city in France. Still, in the end of each piece, there is the title and along with it an invite to ponder its relationship with the music.

Beethoven and titles

Archduke Rudolph, the brother of Francis I, Emperor of Austria, was among Beethoven’s closest friends. Rudolph’s archives contain over a hundred carefully preserved letters from the composer as well as personal memorabilia including first copies and manuscripts of Beethoven’s works. Rudolph supported Beethoven financially and negotiated matters for him in the Imperial Court numerous times. When the nobility, Rudolph among them, fled Napoleon’s armies’ bombardment of Vienna in 1809, Beethoven presented his friend a heartfelt musical gift.

The Sonata Op. 81a in E-flat Major, dedicated to Rudolph, is titled Lebewohl, Abwesenheit und Wiedersehen (Farewell, Separation, and Reunion). The Sonata was issued with the title Les Adieux, because the publisher believed that a French heading would result in greater popularity. The first movement even begins with a musical rendering of a “farewell,” a post-horn motive a due voce, its three descending notes with the syllables “Le-be-wohl” written above them on the page.

The Sonata Les Adieux is unique among Beethoven’s sonatas because of the specificity of its title. Most other named sonatas bear only a general relation with the title, just think how non-particular the inscriptions “moonlight” or “appassionata” are. There are the couple sonatas referring to an existing genre of the time, namely the Pathetique and the Pastoral. Some sonatas have casual nicknames that don’t really get quoted outside the pianist circles: just how often do you hear about the sonatas “The Beauty and the Beast” (Op. 54) or “The Sense and Sensibility” (Op. 90)?

The titles of musical works have always been–well at least for the past 150 odd years–hot potatos. In Debussy’s case the composer himself maneuvered with them in order to secure that the names contain a bit of a mystery, and are, thus, to be taken seriously. Beethoven, on the other hand, left his mostly to be dealt with by future generations. They have, perhaps appropriately, inscribed his music containing such universal appeal with titles that don’t do much to imprison the listeners’ imagination.

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