06 February 2015

Apocalypse? No!

Correspondence to this blog from Stuart Nettleship, who was both my inspirational peer and dearest friend during student days at Cardiff, brings to mind the time he was working on his submission for his Masters in composition.  Already an active composer (as well as fine singer, excellent violinist, brilliant comedy writer and utterly splendid chap) he was preparing a mammoth work for chorus, orchestra and (quite possibly) kitchen sink called Apocalypse.  Heading into the library one day I met an acquaintance on his way out who told me in passing; “Stuart’s there with his ‘Poxy Lips’!”.  Not the kindest nickname for a hugely serious composition, but one which rather sticks in the mind.  It was Stuart’s own father, I think, who coined a much cleverer, but equally inappropriate nickname for the work-in-progress, referring to it as “The Apolcalypso”.  Neither nickname was in any way suitable to such a large-scale work, but I suspect that, without them, I would never now be able to remember the title of Stuart’s magister opus.

Relevant or not, nicknames for musical compositions do provide a very helpful aide memoire and often bring a work to mind more readily than its true title.  Mention Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, for example, and many will rack their brains for a moment to try to remember how it goes; mention the “Emperor Concerto” and we know it straight away.  How useful, too, to have nicknames like “Surprise”, “Le Matin” and “Military” to help us identify individual Haydn symphonies from the vast mass of unmemorable numbers (it’s just a shame so many of them have been given the nickname “London”).  And many will refer to their Most Magical Mozart Moment as the “Elvira Madigan” – so much more memorable than “Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K.467” – and know the music of Richard Strauss primarily as a brief exposition of C major which they refer to as “2001”.

The Haydn nicknames have an obvious basis in the musical character of the works to which they apply, while the Beethoven nickname seems appropriate, even if nobody can be sure to what person, occasion or musical element in the work it specifically refers.  The Mozart and Strauss nicknames come from movies many of us have probably never seen and, certainly in the case of the former, never actually knew existed, and have no bearing whatsoever on the music itself; yet still helps us bring quickly to mind what the music sounds like.  But only very rarely does a composer choose his own nickname, and where he does it usually creates more problems than it solves.  The nickname, for example, Tchaikovsky chose (with a bit of help from his brother) for his Sixth Symphony might have seemed entirely apposite to a Russian audience, but a direct translation to English of the one-word nickname paints a wholly different, and far less complimentary, picture; and for that reason only in the most lowly musical circles do you ever see it referred to as Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetic” Symphony, the usual practice being to change the c into a que to give it, at least, a rather more elusive quality.

Other nicknames have come along entirely by accident, and I am guilty of creating one of these.  Working as a music critic in London I was dispatched to do a fairly routine review of a recital in (if I remember correctly) the Queen Elizabeth Hall by a brass ensemble the name of which I cannot now bring to mind.  Neither can I recall the programme they played nor, indeed, whether or not I liked it.  What I do remember is that it included a work by Stuart’s former composition tutor (and my professor), Alun Hoddinott.  And I can remember this because, phoning my review through to the copy-taker (in those pre-computer days, all newspaper copy had to be dictated over the phone to one of those incredible typists who could not only type perfectly at speed, but could also correct and improve your grammar, punctuation and syntax as you dictated – where have these brilliant men and women gone now?) I committed the cardinal sin of not spelling out every name and title; no matter how good the copy-taker was, it was still one’s own job to make sure all titles and names were exactly right.  So having mentioned that our anonymous brass players performed Hoddinott’s Ritornelli I was horrified to read in my review the following morning that the concert had featured “Hoddinott’s Little Nellies”.  I made a point of apologising to the composer when next I saw him; he was gracious and suggested that, without the error, most people would have forgotten what the work was called.  How right he was!

The question of how much credence should be given to nicknames which have become accepted through common practice rather than as integral to the work’s proper title is a problematic one.  Indeed, the whole issue of how to list and present a work’s title causes those of us who write about music an enormous amount of concern.  Catalogue numbers, for example, can be really confusing and actually off-putting to potential audiences if they are not handled with care; what would be more likely to bring the punters in to a Haydn performance, “Missa in angustis, HobXXII.11” or “Nelson Mass”?  Would not more audience turn up to a piano recital featuring the “Moonlight Sonata” than one billed as including the “Keyboard Sonata No.14 in  C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2”?  I like the habit many, particularly German, concert halls have of putting the catalogue number in a smaller typeface to differentiate it from the full title (ie: Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Op.27 No.2) and while the usual convention in English-language publications is simply to separate the number from the title with a comma (Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op 27 No.2) that can be confusing.  So, with my absolute obsession with parentheses (of which all readers of this blog must be painfully aware) I prefer to put such numbers in brackets, simply to show that they are incidental to, rather than a part of, the work’s title; somehow Piano Sonata in C sharp minor (Op.27 No.2) seems a little friendlier to a non-specialist audience.

I have usually gone down the path of adding more specific detail the further into the written material one delves.  Thus, when first promoting a concert I suggest steering clear of those specifics which will be appreciated by only a few cognoscenti.  If a pianist has chosen to include Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in a recital programme, the pianist probably is hoping that the presence of that work will draw in a large audience; so I advise listing it as such (and no more) on all pre-concert material as a tempter for the widest possible audience.  Once in the concert hall, the audience can be regarded as being more receptive to greater depth of detail, and on the first page of any programme – that which lists the works in the order they are performed and usually gives the approximate timings - it would be appropriate to suggest that the work is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, “Moonlight”.  Only once the audience member has decided to delve more deeply into the background to the work by reading the actual programme notes should the full panoply of titling be unleashed, and even then in a piecemeal fashion.  Here, at the top of the programme note, one can, for the first time, list the catalogue number, but only in the body of the programme note would it be really appropriate to give the composer’s (or his publisher’s) full original title for the work. That also allows us to show that we know the composer called the work “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra”, while we have, everywhere else, simply referred to it as “Violin Concerto”.

But what of nicknames?  Very few people know it as such, but Beethoven did give his Moonlight Sonata a nickname – “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” – and at some time in the body of the programme note this needs to be mentioned.  Highlighting it on the title page or in pre-concert publicity would, in most cases, simply complicate matters.  Trawling through the web resources on programme notes from many and varied sources, I came across one music teacher who advised her pupils in great detail how to include nicknames in the titles.  She wrote of adding dashes and single inverted commas;  all sensible stuff, except that the nickname she chose as an example was the “London Symphony” (as in Vaughan Williams Symphony No.2 – ‘London’).  Unfortunately, that is not a nickname but the actual title of the work.  Vaughan Williams called it “A London Symphony” and I’m pretty sure he himself never referred to the symphony with a number. (Interesting how, once he started applying numbers to his symphonies they went, musically , downhill.)

Giving musical nicknames on printed concert posters, radio listings and CD/record sleeves is vital to help most people recognise works they like.  (Where would the world of popular classical music be had not some wag a few years ago decided to link four Vivaldi violin concertos under the collective title “The Four Seasons”?)  But for students preparing their own recital programmes and for professional programme note-writers, the matter needs to be handled with extreme care, balancing the need to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the work and its background with an awareness of the music’s popular reception.  Getting mixed up between correct titles and informal nicknames may not bring about an apocalypse, but may well lay the writer open to accusations of possessing the equivalent of Poxy Lips.

No comments:

Post a Comment