Posted on

On the Significance of the Title

Reprint­ed from “On the Sig­nif­i­cance of the Title,” The NBA Jour­nal, Vol. LV, Nr. 2, Win­ter, 2015.

In April 2015, I will be con­duct­ing an all-city hon­or band in San Diego and have pro­grammed Wagner’s beau­ti­ful arrange­ment of the music of von Weber known today as Trauer­musik, a work I like to pro­gram to demon­strate to oth­er con­duc­tors and stu­dents the artis­tic free­dom they are allowed with respect to Time. But as I began to think about these young musi­cians I would be mak­ing music with, I began to won­der if the title itself, Trauer­musik, would play an undue influ­ence on their think­ing. The word trauer, which does not trans­late well into Eng­lish, in Ger­man means “mourn­ing” or “grief,” emo­tions which do not rep­re­sent well the actu­al music of von Weber which Wag­n­er select­ed to arrange for wind band. At this point in the opera, Euryan­the is alone in the for­est, med­i­tat­ing on life and death but any sense of grief has more to do with hav­ing lost her lover, Adolar.

What did Wag­n­er him­self call this music? His orig­i­nal auto­graph score was a two-stave man­u­script made from a “conductor’s score” housed in the opera library in Dres­den and lost in World War II. This score has no title oth­er than “Ada­gio.” Sim­i­lar­ly, the ear­li­est auto­graph score which has the des­ig­na­tion of wind instru­ments is called sim­ply, “Ada­gio.” In Wagner’s own, lengthy account of the his­to­ry of this occa­sion and this music he nev­er used the term “Trauer­musik,” and only refers to this music once as “this quite appro­pri­ate­ly sym­phon­ic piece.” I may be mis­tak­en, but I have nev­er seen the term “Trauer­musik” in Wagner’s hand on an auto­graph score nor men­tioned in his cor­re­spon­dence dur­ing the time peri­od it was com­posed. It is in the two ear­li­est pub­li­ca­tions (1860 and 1926) that edi­tors cre­at­ed the title “Trauersin­fonie,” a term which the New Grove specif­i­cal­ly points out is “not authen­tic.”

It is true that Wag­n­er gave the first per­for­mance of this arrange­ment as part of the cer­e­mo­ny he orga­nized to hon­or the return of the remains of Weber from Eng­land to Dres­den, but that was an occa­sion which could only hap­pen once. What about lat­er per­for­mances? I have decid­ed I am going to change the title. “Ada­gio” is not a bad choice, but for this per­for­mance com­ing up I think I will list this com­po­si­tion in the pro­gram as “The Med­i­ta­tions of Euryan­the,” arranged for band by Wag­n­er, to give the music a more uni­ver­sal mean­ing.

Sim­i­lar­ly, there are some won­der­ful orig­i­nal band com­po­si­tions by nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ital­ian com­posers called “Mar­cia fune­bre.” But these works near­ly always turn out to be con­tem­pla­tive and nev­er seem like func­tion­al music and cer­tain­ly not march­es. A band com­po­si­tion such as Ponchielli’s Mar­cia fune­bre per Man­zoni, might bet­ter be called an Ele­gy (“a pen­sive or reflec­tive poem”).

This brings us to ques­tions the impor­tance of titles in gen­er­al. The crit­i­cal ele­ment in per­for­mance is the listener—music makes no sense with­out a lis­ten­er and the lis­ten­er is the basis of the phi­los­o­phy of aes­thet­ics in music. But it is the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the music to the lis­ten­er which mat­ters. A title such as “North­ridge Over­ture” tells the lis­ten­er noth­ing. Titles with the form, such as Sym­pho­ny, Over­ture, Fugue, mean very lit­tle to the mod­ern lis­ten­er. Even descrip­tive titles, such as Music for Prague, 1968, mean noth­ing to the lis­ten­er with­out detailed pro­gram notes.

My par­tic­u­lar con­cern is titles which give a wrong impres­sion to the lis­ten­er. I am very unhap­py when I see one of Mozart’s won­der­ful par­ti­tas, the name he used, called “Ser­e­nades.” In the Clas­si­cal Peri­od the name “par­ti­ta” was used as inter­change­able with “sym­pho­ny,” the under­stand­ing at the time being only that one was for winds and the oth­er for strings. But “ser­e­nade” is a prej­u­di­cial term, near­ly always used in ear­ly lit­er­a­ture in cir­cum­stances which were demean­ing to the musi­cians. In the case of the Mozart mas­ter­pieces for winds the title “ser­e­nade” was added by ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pub­lish­ers and reflect­ed a strong and mis­tak­en prej­u­dice at that time that wind music must be either for the out-of-doors or for the din­ing area, “Tafel­musik.” Let us resolve to nev­er again call the great C minor Par­ti­ta for winds by Mozart, a work near­ly all musi­cians and crit­ics con­sid­er to be among the very best works by Mozart, a “ser­e­nade.”

A very sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance sur­rounds a tru­ly won­der­ful com­po­si­tion for winds by Beethoven, a work he called sim­ply, “Andante.” A lat­er uniden­ti­fied hand has writ­ten on the mar­gin, “Ron­do,” but it was the first pub­lish­er, Dia­bel­li, in Vien­na, who gave this music the name, “Rondi­no,” which it still car­ries today. Again this is some­what demean­ing as it sug­gests some­thing less than “Ron­do.”

There is a very large reper­toire of orig­i­nal band music from the Baroque Peri­od writ­ten for ensem­bles called Haut­bois­t­en. The com­posers of these com­po­si­tions were care­ful to call them “Over­ture,” “Con­cer­to [da cam­era]” or “Sin­fo­nia,” even though the inter­nal forms under these titles vary so great­ly that one must con­clude that the def­i­n­i­tion of the forms did not yet enjoy wide agree­ment. It is clear that the Over­ture becomes the Diver­ti­men­to of the Clas­si­cal Peri­od and the Con­cer­to and Sin­fo­nia become the Parthia. But because the names of these forms are so clear­ly writ­ten, even in those cas­es where the com­pos­er is not named, we should use these titles today even though they lack much mean­ing for the lis­ten­er.

In con­clu­sion it remains that it is the music which is impor­tant, but we should be care­ful that the title does not con­fuse the lis­ten­er or in some way prej­u­dice them before their hear­ing of the music.

David Whitwell