The Frederick Symphony Orchestra Blog

How Are Classical Music Compositions Named?

Posted by Illumine8 on Dec 6, 2017 9:00:00 AM

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If you’re not familiar with how classical compositions are titled, Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Little Russian is more satisfying to listen to than to read.

Take one of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven's most celebrated works, Piano Sonata No.14, Op.27, No.2. While most people recognize it by Moonlight, how is the sincere title created?

Class Notes™ video What's in a Title? breaks it up into the following six sections, using Austrian composer Georg Haydn's lively The Lark quartet -- otherwise known as String Quartet No. 53 in D Major (The Lark), Op. 64, No. 5 -- as a prime example of title confusion:

Ensemble Identification. “String quartet” tells conductors and musicians which instruments that this piece of classical music is played by. In the case of Haydn’s work, two violins, a viola, and a cello are meant to play this composition.

In Beethoven’s case, the work is meant for a piano.

Compositions Written. “No. 53” in the case of The Lark depicts the number of specific quartets that Haydn wrote up to this point. In Beethoven’s case, “No. 14” was his 14th sonata. (You can find the rest of the library here.)

Key. In The Lark, “in D Major” is the key that the musical composition was written in. Many classical music pieces have this distinction, because a total of 24 keys exist.

Keys are separated into 12 major and 12 minor keys (with three major keys named in two different ways due to sharp and flat notes). This titular distinction indicates how symphonies should play the composition.

Thematic Name. Also known as the common name, this is how most people recognize a piece of classical music. It could’ve been named arbitrarily, but it typically reflects how the music sounds. Haydn’s 53rd quartet is named The Lark because the first violin is supposed to sound like a lark, a small ground-dwelling songbird.

Beethoven's sonata's romantic nickname, Moonlight, came from a Berlin critic named Ludwig Rellstab who, in 1832, described the famous first movement as like "a boat passing the wild scenery of Lake Lucerne [in Switzerland] in the moonlight.”

Opus. Opus literally means work in 18th Century Latin. Shortened to “Op”, it’s a way to organize and catalog a collection of music by a composer to indicate the chronological order of the composer's production. In the case of Haydn’s The Lark, this composition is part of his 64th opus.

An opus can contain one or multiple, separate works. However, it’s always followed by a number (in this case, "No. 5") that means this is his fifth composition within this opus.

In Beethoven’s case, Moonlight was the second piece as part of his 27th opus.

Check out other odd classical music denotations below:

  • Take German composer George Frideric Handel’s Concerto for Organ in B-flat Major, HWV 294. What does HWV 294 mean?

    It stands for the Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis, the catalog of Handel's works that was published in three volumes in German between 1978 and 1986. It lists every piece of music known to have been written by Handel.

  • What about German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050? It stands for the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the catalog of compositions by J.S. Bach that was published in 1950 and edited by Wolfgang Schmieder.

  • How about Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, K 299?

    The Köchel-Verzeichnis or Köchelverzeichnis is a chronological catalog of compositions by Mozart, originally created by Ludwig von Köchel, in which the entries are abbreviated K and KV.

    You can listen to the Frederick Symphony Orchestra’s Paulela Burchill and Casey Perley perform this composition during Mozart On The Civil War Trail on Feb. 11, 2018 at 3 p.m. in Zion Lutheran Church in Middletown, Maryland.

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Topics: classical music, piano sonatas