Monday, February 05, 2007

Names and destiny

At the behest of his publisher, Schönberg added suggestive, if not programmatic, subtitles to his Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 . Although the titles were afterthoughts to pieces composed as absolute music, audiences have persistently "heard" seaside rustling, gentle tides, and lake trout jumping to the the third movement, with the original title Farben (Colors), now somewhat hidden behind the subtitle "Summer Morning by a Lake".

I recently finished two string quartets, my fourth (actually a replacement for an abandoned piece) and fifth. The working computer files into which I entered the scores carried the names Autumn and Winter, respectively, by which I was simply identifying the project of the current season. While composing, I had absolutely no programmatic let alone meteorological notions about either of the pieces. On a whim, I sent out a few copies of the scores to some trusted musician friends, leaving the file names as titles for the quartets. The main response to the scores have been (1) compliments on "capturing" the feel of the seasons, and (2) questions about my plans for Spring and Summer.

This reaction has been surprising, as program music is not in my portfolio, and even if it were, I doubt that I'd do seasons as I'm stuck, psychologically, in a kind of permanent seasonal lag: it's either mid-November, or simply too damn hot.

Nevertheless, I'm going to leave the titles in place, in the spirit of a somewhat more sober whimsy, but I think that this experience has been a good lesson in the utility of generic titles. I will be more careful with casually titling pieces in the future (thank goodness I didn't call the files Irene or George or Clubbing Baby Seals or Baghdad or Rainbows, Puppy Dogs, & Unicorns, or even "Tulips & Elephants). And no, there won't be quartets for Summer and Spring. That'd be someone else.

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