On April 14th, 2005 I made my way to the National Arts Centre to take in a show featuring Canada’s very talented national orchestra performing long-ago works written by some of the most brilliant minds in the known history of music.
And for some reason these creative masters, these geniuses of unparalleled greatness, they all just plain suck at coming up with song titles.
First up was a piece by Beethoven, of course one of the true champions of the classical symphony. You might remember his #6? Or his ever-so-famous #5? Then there is was his crowning achievement, the oh-so-dramatic and uplifting #9, which less creative lazy-wags went on to nickname Ode to Joy?
I’ve often wondered if Beethoven waited until he wrote his 2nd Symphony before he named his 1st? Like, they didn’t start calling it the First World War until after there had been a Second World War, right? Or maybe when he finished writing his first symphony he was brimming with such confidence in his future career that he just went for it and called it Beethoven’s First Symphony. It’s good marketing if nothing else.
The fact that the orchestra started off this concert with Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus should in no way absolve the decomposer (he is dead, after all) from my song-titling jabs. Sure, Creatures of Prometheus is a pretty great title, but it was the only ballet Ludwig ever wrote, and it was based on the libretto of one Salvatore Viganò, who I assume should be the one taking credit for such a good name. For his part, Beethoven actually titled his musical bits thusly: Act I: Poco Adagio, Adagio – allegro con brio, and Minuetto, and Act II: Maestoso, Adagio, Un poco Adagio, Grave, Allegro con brio, Adagio, Pastorale, Andante, Maestoso, Allegro, Andante, Andantino, and Finale.
Which means in English: Act I: A Little Slow, Slow – Cheerful with Panache, Like a Minuet, and Act II: Majestic, Slow, A Little Slow, Very Slow, Cheerful with Panache, Slow, Pastoral, Moderately Paced, Majestic, Fast, Moderately Paced, A Bit Faster Than Moderately Paced, and End.
Clever, huh? Luckily he had the Creatures title to lump it all under, elsewise he might have called the ballet Group of Differently Paced Movements with Several Repeated Tempos, in Two Acts or something equally bland.
Next up was Felix Mendelssohn with his Piano Concerto #1, Opus 25, another clever little moniker for an unbridled piece of pianoforte ferocity. Like, did these guys just not care? Do you think he named his dog Pet One and his cat Pet Two? “Child Six! Stop picking on Child Eight or I’ll send you to bed without Meal Three!”
Which brings us to the closing number of the evening, a famous little ditty by Franz Joseph Haydn called The Surprise Symphony. Yes friends, though the piece is officially called Symphony #94 (eat that Ludwig van Lazybones), it has a name. But I would hesitate to call it clever name.
The super-simple melody is quiet and lulling, and once (just once) the whole orchestra hits a very loud fortissimo chord all together, providing a shock to the audience and the title of the piece. I would hesitate to call it clever, but hey, it was a start.
But who cares? you might be asking. Well, clearly I do. I’ll give you an example. After the Gold Rush is a great song by Neil Young, but the title (which doesn’t appear in the song at all) gives the song it’s complete meaning, and grounds the medieval sci-fi collage in something very human and easily relatable. Frankly, the title alone elevates the song beyond great and straight to iconic.
Another good example: Bob Wiseman wrote an excellent lament about his ex-girlfriend that clearly should be called Maureen (her name is repeated incessantly throughout the song) but there’s a line near the end where Bob sings something like “You’d probably be really excited to know that there was a song named after you so I think I’ll call this song Sweet Gertrude instead…” and then you flip over the album and Bam! the song is actually called Sweet Gertrude. Brilliant.
Don’t get me wrong, those Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s and Haydn’s and the rest are undeniably great composers, but they missed a whole lot of opportunities to amp up their work with a few well-thought titles is what I’m saying.