Names and Numbers

We’ve argued back and forth about whether or not our music has or even should have a name so many times; far be it from me to return to the U.S. this week and start up that old hobbyhorse again. However, a similar pet peeve of mine has never quite made it to this debating stage: Namely, why do so many composers still insist on numbering their works rather than naming them?

Sure, we’re no longer living in the era of Haydn, Beethoven, and the gang where everything was either Piano Sonata No. 28 or Symphony No. 6, but this strangest of naming games has yet to completely disappear from our collective reflexes. For the record, I don’t intend to criticize folks who write piano sonatas or symphonies—I’ve even penned a couple of piano sonatas myself, though I’ve yet to attempt a symphony—but why must they be named as if they were volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica?

There are even folks around who aren’t writing in centuries-old forms who feel the need to create series of pieces and number them: Synchronisms, Extensions, etc. Why? Music seems to be the biggest offender of all the arts in this regard, perhaps because it’s the most abstract. There are abstract painters who coyly use names like Untitled No. 35—names which leave me equally cold—but when is the last time you read someone’s Novel No. 11?

Mind you, I love all this music, but I can’t quite love the names we sometimes give it, and I wonder if those names keep other people from loving it. Ironically, my favorite pieces by John Cage are the so-called “number” pieces he wrote at the end of his life. These works are simply titled after the number of people required to perform them. If there is more than one requiring the same number, Cage simply added a second number in superscript to the original number, connoting the order in which the piece was written a la the rest of the classical music tradition. But somehow these number titles, left completely by themselves, seem more elegant. Yet I still wish, especially since he was such an accomplished poet and prose stylist, he had taken the opportunity to come up with something more verbally compelling.

In Imperial China, families named their sons and daughters by number in the order in which they were born, but how many people besides George Foreman would do that to their kids these days?

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4 thoughts on “Names and Numbers

  1. doneth

    Frank J. Oteri’s question, “Why do so many composers still insist on numbering their compositions,” is one of the silliest I’ve ever heard. Novels are about words; if you’re setting a poem or other set of words, you can name it after that. But symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas etc are abstract works of art, or should be. If you give them names, I may decide, according to how old I am, what kind of education I have, whether I live in a red state or a blue state etc, that your name is to cute or trendy or emotional or politically correct or incorrect, and say to myself, “I’m certainly not going to bother listening to that.” What it comes down to is, what kind of listeners do you want?

    Donald Clarke

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  2. JohnClare

    Frank-
    This also brings up what a title passes along to the listener…who listens to “Ballet for Martha” when you can listen to “Appalachain Spring”? I’ve heard (apocryphal?) that Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’s original title was a license plate number. Yet, would it be famous as BZ897A (insert your favorite alpha/numeric combo here) instead of the mental picture of a nuclear explosion and aftermath?
    I think we’re talking along a tangent of building audiences here besides creativity – what will help a listener – Sonata #3 or Les Parapluies de Cherbourg?
    Here’s something to ponder: critics, publishers and friends nickname compositions in the past – Moonlight Sonata wasn’t Beethoven’s title. Why don’t we do the same?
    Let’s start with John Harbison’s stunning Piano Sonata No. 2 (2003) which doesn’t say much about the work. How the “Italian” sonata? Suggestions?

    *btw, I was moved last week while in Philly interviewing George Crumb and catching Leila Josefowicz play the Adams Concerto by the paintings of Pollock and Rauschenberg and their abstract titles…

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  3. Marc

    Titular
    The problem is that composers can either be abstract or concrete. At least, they can attempt to be concrete, since the Pastoral Symphony only sounds pastoral if you know the code. But if someone doesn’t want to illustrate the sea and call their work The Sea, and only represent the relations of the notes, then you end up with an abstract title. It’s not a stupid question; it’s simply that different goals are involved for different pieces.

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  4. nariward

    anachronism
    isn’t it more that it was just the style of the times to name works with numbers and whatnot? I, for one, have a much easier time remembering the names of thousands of pop songs, if only because they have more contemporary names. Despite my familiarity with it, I would be hard pressed to identify by name most classical because of the obscure, and, I would say, obsolete, naming protocol. Give me Mozart’s “Stairway to Valhalla” and I’m all over it.

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