A thought experiment: you’re a performer, opening a score for the first time. On the first page of music, in small print, just under the title, a phrase catches your eye: “To Milton Babbitt.” Really? “Oooh,” you might think, or, “Yikes!” But deeper reactions follow. “What’s the story here?” you wonder. You reflect on the composer’s biography: Was she a student of Babbitt’s? Did she go to Juilliard? Could she have met him elsewhere? But—wait—how old is this composer? Perhaps she was not a student but more of a peer. Perhaps the dedication represents one link in a chain of reciprocation between the two composers. Did Babbitt dedicate something to her as well? Or maybe he helped advance her career somehow?
Later, your process of learning the piece is haunted by Babbitt’s spectral (ha?) shape. You arrive at a passage of registral saturation, and that unmistakable round head with horn-rimmed glasses provokes other questions: Could he have written this? Or at least inspired it? You begin to wonder if your performance of certain passages should be informed by your experience with Babbitt’s music. You realize, of course, that it probably already has been.
Now imagine a similar scenario in which the exact same piece is dedicated to Philip Glass. You would pose the same questions about the composer’s biography and reciprocation (and would again stifle an “Oooh!” or “Yikes!”). But your process of learning the piece would probably change; the hovering spirit of Glass would highlight other musical characteristics and would inform your interpretation differently. Where you might before have seen quasi-serialist gestures, for instance, you might now find vaguely tonal, fragmentary arpeggios.
Though they might seem at first blush superficial and fleeting, the inquiries prompted by dedications in this kind of mental exercise are in fact deeply revealing. It’s not so radical to claim that music involves multi-layered communication between the composer and performer (assuming the two don’t exist in the same body), between the audience and the performer (assuming there is a performer), and between the composer and the audience. The dedication introduces a calculated human element into all of these interactions. It presents a persona, carrying all sorts of implications regarding a composer’s personal and professional associations as well as the work’s musical content, and inviting those who interact with it to view the composer and the piece in a broader context than they might otherwise.
What is a dedication?
You might ordinarily think of the dedication as the product of an older economy, a Western European one in which composers were supported by Renaissance Men of Importance in short dresses and tights—and you’d be right. In recognition of patronage, or as a way to seek future sponsorship, composers offered written works usually to individuals from the court and clergy.
Like most cultural practices, the dedication did adapt to changes in power structure. Most interestingly, in the later 18th century, approximately at the time that crowns—or at least tights—went out of style, composers began to dedicate works to each other. Some of you might know, for instance, Mozart’s string quartets (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465) for Haydn (1785) or Beethoven’s Op. 2 piano sonatas for Haydn (1796). Most 19th- and 20th-century composers, in fact, dedicated at least one work to a peer or teacher.
And thus the modern musical dedicatory practice was born: composers now offer works to many types of recipients, including commissioning groups or patrons, friends, family, performers, and fellow composers.
Of course, not every dedication looks like a dedication. Some come encoded in titles, like John Cage’s For M.C. and D.T. (1952) or Conlon Nancarrow’s For Yoko (1980), some look like birthday presents, like Lou Harrison’s An Old Times Tune for Merce Cunningham’s 75th Birthday (1993) or Stucky’s Ai Due Amici for Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg (1998). Still others, including William Bolcom’s Three Dance Portraits (1986), whose movements are riddles connected to names of the composer’s friends, or many of Lou Harrison’s gamelan works, seem to be portraits, but function simultaneously as offerings, musical sketches given as gifts and cousins of the homage, which is again another form of non-dedication dedication.
Who reads dedications?
Most important to remember about this shape-shifting kind of gift is that it is a public one. There are many ways to honor a peer: one could sneak some sort of musical reference to him or her into the fabric of the piece, one could present a manuscript copy with a personal note, or one could even hide an inside joke in the title of a work. By contrast, the dedication represents a choice to make a very visible gesture. It becomes a prominent part of the text of the work, apparent to performers, and often spectators as well.
So who reads the dedication? The dedicatees of course, but also, well, you, as a member of the public audience. Who are you? Well, if you’re reading this article, then you are some sort of music consumer. You are probably involved with music in some way, as a composer, performer, or informed spectator, which means that you are at least periodically invested in the making of and listening to music. And in these activities, if you read scores for any purpose, then you’ve seen a dedication. Furthermore, particularly for those non-dedication dedications disguised as titles, you don’t even need to see a score (if there is one); you might learn of them in programs or elsewhere.
Dedications to patron-like figures were designed to acknowledge financial support, so why offer a piece to a non-paying figure, especially a peer? That’s a big question that one could fill a book trying to answer. Here are a few theories.
First, dedications have private or semi-private purposes; they are intended to communicate something, usually some species of gratitude, to their recipient. One common sentiment is the acknowledgement of teaching; many composers have offered works to mentors. One of the historically most discussed examples, for instance, is Beethoven’s dedication to Haydn, a gesture famous as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. It was common around 1800 for composers to label themselves as students when dedicating to a teacher, usually with a phrase like “student of x.” Beethoven, however, chose not to mark himself as a “student of Haydn,” a fact that, by some second-hand accounts, made Haydn uncomfortable, presumably because the lack of such a label seemed a denial of—or at least an ungrateful attitude towards—the composer’s mentorship.
In general, though, dedications to teachers do seem to communicate appreciation, and are usually offered fairly early in a composer’s career. Examples include: Schoenberg’s op. 1 lieder (1898) “to his teacher and friend,” Alexander Zemlinsky; Harold Shapero’s String Quartet (1941) to Walter Piston; David Lang’s Grind to a Halt (1996) to Jacob Druckman; and Ken Ueno’s Apmonia (2004) to Bernard Rands.
But dedications communicate to a public audience as well. First, they reveal biographical information and tell (or begin) stories about the dedicator. They entice the audience to investigate the relationship between the dedicator and dedicatee, whether there was one or not. Take Elgar’s op. 36 “Enigma” Variations. Dedicating the work “to my friends pictured within” and labeling each variation with initials and nicknames, Elgar tempts his audience to reconstruct his social circle. In fact, he may as well have titled them the “Please Solve Me Variations” given the speed and enthusiasm with which many of these riddles were deciphered. (Of course the central enigma, the theme of the work, remains unsolved.) Many other offerings are more overtly suggestive: Satie’s memorial Élégie for Debussy (1920) is explicitly marked in honor of “an admiring and pleasant friendship of thirty years.”
Most importantly, the dedication doesn’t only imply the existence of a relationship; it causes the audience to probe that relationship, searching for clues about the circumstances surrounding the offering itself. It’s like a sophisticated game of connect the dots, in which we see the outline of an interaction and are invited to fill in the details. That’s why the “Enigma” Variations are so irresistible; they openly activate our investigative instinct. And like most kinds of play, the dedicatory game is, on a deeper level, an empathic exercise, one wherein the reader imagines himself in the composer’s subjective space, attempting to envision the variety of scenarios that might have resulted in a personal or professional connection.
No really, why dedicate? (The cynical answer)
The fact that composer-to-composer dedications became common alongside the development of the modern musical economy is no mistake. Since the mid- to late 18th century, when they were decreasingly able to earn support from patrons, composers have had to find creative ways to appeal to a consuming public and to distinguish themselves in a marketplace increasingly crowded with their competitors’ wares. Some have used clever titles (much of Satie’s catalogue comes readily to mind), some have used unique instruments, perhaps in an attempt to jump early onto a bandwagon (such as the late-18th-century vogue for the glass harmonica or the mid-20th-century infatuation with the theremin); one could even argue that experiments with compositional techniques and form were in part an attempt to attract positive criticism, though that’s a leap that would require another article to justify.
This particular type of dedication was similarly designed to catch the consumer’s eye, as was especially evident in the 18th and 19th centuries when title pages were more crowded and elaborate. Today, dedications are printed almost exclusively on the first page of music in small print, whereas before approximately 1875, the dedicatee’s name rivaled that of the composer, as both appeared centrally on the title page in large and ornate script. Advertisements also often mentioned dedications, making this small bit of text even more likely to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.
When Andreas Romberg, an early-19th-century violinist and composer, wrote to his publisher in 1801, his excited language pushed the promotional power of his dedication to Haydn: “This dedication will surely not be unappreciated by you, as it will doubtless promote the sale of the works. Now tell me if we don’t understand our public—or rather, the world!” The dedication, Romberg boasts, would help sales and would reveal an unparalleled knowledge of the marketplace.
These days, dedications are rarely used in the service of publishers’ advertisements, but that doesn’t mean they go unnoticed. Cleverness will always attract attention, which is why witty dedications might endear the audience to their authors and thus serve an obliquely promotional purpose, whether intentional or not. It probably comes as no surprise that three eminent wordsmiths—Erik Satie, John Cage, and David Rakowski—boast a few such examples: “I dedicate this work to myself” reads the first page of Satie’s Prélude de La porte heroique du ciel (1894); Cage’s book Silence (1961) is “To Whom It May Concern,” and Rakowski’s piano etude no. 94, Knocksville (2010), is playfully dedicated “at” Harold Meltzer.
But the claim of legacy constitutes a clearer and more common brand of self-promotion.
In 1854, for instance, Liszt offered his B-minor Sonata to Schumann, who was at that time a prominent composer in the Germanic tradition. Liszt, on the other hand, had not yet composed a sonata or any other type of work that would have been considered Beethovenian. The public offering to Schumann, therefore, would have signaled Liszt’s wish both to ally himself with this Teutonic tradition and to be validated by Schumann’s (or his disciples’) approval.
Particularly when a younger composer dedicates to a more established figure in this way, the implication of approval bleeds easily into one of influence. And what, after all, is more promotional in the music world than the claim of impressive professional associations? Is this not the reason for so much of the standard rhetoric in concert programs and website bios?
The “I” in Dedication
It may seem too cynical to suggest that composers manipulate the dedication, a seemingly intimate gesture, for financial gain. But whether or not we like to admit it, composers often need to be business people, and this involves, in part, crafting unique public personas as much as any other class of individuals with a public face: actors, television personalities, politicians (alright, maybe not as much as politicians).
Interestingly, one of the most important characteristics for a composer to project is that she is not a business person. After all, few consumers want to think of music as a commodity, a product engineered for success on the marketplace. That’s generally a buzz-kill for the musical experience.
The composer-to-composer dedication, it turns out, is a good antidote. An apparent window into the personal and professional interactions of its author, this kind of offering gives the consumer the impression that he or she is glimpsing an inner life, an authentic selfhood invested in friendships, mentorships, and overall sincerity. Moreover, it implies not a financial transaction, like a commission, but an aesthetic communion, one in which musical ideas and influence has been shared.
There is some evidence that composers themselves view their dedications in this way. Steven Stucky, for instance, suspects that his increased tendency to dedicate in recent years reflects an attitude “less formal and more personal.” Ingram Marshall has also characterized his offering of Vibrosuperball (1975) to John Adams as a “personal” one. For Ken Ueno, the inspiration is at once musical and intimately cooperative. “The Utopia, that is my imagination for what might be,” he says, “is expanded by new vistas revealed to me by what my most trusted virtuosic collaborators can make real. The dedications to my pieces honor that history of collaboration.” Something similar is true for Rakowski. Many of his dedications honor those to whom he feels indebted for the concept or motivation for particular works, like piano etudes nos. 52, Moody’s Blues (2003), and 54, Pedal to the Metal (2003), both to Rick Moody, or 82, F This (2007), to Marilyn Nonken and Ueno.
So, if composers prefer to think of their dedications as private gestures between friends, and consumers tend to view them that way as well, why argue that they serve any other purpose? Because something more happens upon their reception. The composer’s public image changes. Consumers are drawn to contemplate a Venn diagram of affections and influences that may have affected the creation of the work.
This small bit of text packs a punch, then. It projects an image of a composer inspired by her peers, grateful for her friends, and indebted to her predecessors. It says, in its author’s voice, “I am true, I am genuine, I collaborate, I appreciate tradition.” And this is music to our eyes.
As an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow, Emily H. Green is a musicologist on the faculty at the Department of Music at Yale University. Her work on dedications and musical consumerism has appeared in Eighteenth-Century Music and the Journal of Musicological Research. She is also active as a pianist and fortepianist.