What’s in a title?

Dear #ClassicalMusic Fan,

What’s in a title?


What are all those odd numbers and abbreviations you see on posters and in programs?

Sometimes it can get confusing looking at the title of a piece of classical music.

Old Sheet Music

Sometimes it’s easy to look at the title and think “Sounds great! I’d like to hear that piece.” For example, Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams, or Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar. But tell someone the local library has a concert featuring Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 for solo violin, and you’re more likely to go get ice cream instead.

Fear not, dear #classicalmusic fan.

Here’s a breakdown of the usual title formatting:

First, the composer’s last name. Bach.

Second, the form, genre or structure of the composition. In our case, a Partita (which basically means a suite, or collection of little pieces, for just one performer on one instrument).

Then if the composer has written other pieces like it, you’ll get which one this is. In our case, this is Bach’s second partita (for solo violin). Hence, No. 2.

Next comes the key of the piece. People write books and books about keys, but suffice it to say here that the key is another identifying feature of the music. We all respond differently to different keys, and some folk even think of colors when they hear music in particular keys. But most of the time, it’s just saying ‘this piece’ as opposed to ‘that piece’. Here’s what you might hear a couple of musicians saying to each other:

“Yeah, I’ve got to prepare a Bach piece, too.”

“Wochya gonna do?”

“Probably a Partita.”

“The E Major?”

“Nah, probably the D minor.”

“Sweet. Good luck with that one!”

Most of the time these long titles end with a publisher’s identifying catalogue number. In our case, Bach’s catalogue is abbreviated BWV, short for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis. Ironically, this translates to “Bach Works Catalogue” and all Bach’s music is grouped together in themes rather than chronologically.

You’re probably more familiar with seeing “Op. 23” or something. Op. is short for Opus (which is latin for a physical “work” much like the Italian word Opera also means “work”), and usually composers’ catalogues that use Opus numbers do so in chronological order – the order in which the music was written. Or at least, published. (Did you know Dvořák wrote his symphonies 4, 5 and 6 after he wrote symphonies 7, 8 and 9? But they were numbered in the order they were published). Other times, music researchers memorialize themselves with their own cataloguing reference, such as Anthony van Hoboken who re-organized Haydn’s music. Instead of HWV or Op., you’ll now see a Hob. number.

Finally, there might be another number at the very end. This is usually when the piece of music contains multiple little pieces. They are not necessarily related movements, but just a bunch of little pieces the composer (or more accurately, the publisher) thought would be nice (i.e. cost-effective) to combine for your listening pleasure (or… marketing: more bang for your buck).

The title below should now look quite familiar. Can you translate its parts?

Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, for solo piano.

When I write music, I like to keep my titles simple and, hopefully, memorable.

Check out the five titles in my CD Baby store…

You can download the tracks while you’re there: