The composers of the earliest written music, like chant and medieval polyphony, identified their works by the incipit of a text. Thus Pérotin’s 20-minute-long Sederunt principes, even in a 12th-century manuscript, didn’t have a title page or a heading at the top of the first page of score: “Sederunt principes, organum in 4 parts,” but would be known by the text of its cantus firmus, even though the successive syllables of the tenor might be several pages apart.
Two centuries or so later, Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1383) left chansons to posterity—his music with his own verses. We know these songs by the first line of text. He also left a complete Ordinary of the Mass, with an actual title: Messe de Nostre Dame. Within another century, dozens of Mass compositions would become well known in church use, and these would be identified by title and usually by composer as well: Josquin des Prez left a Missa Pange lingua (based on a chant, a Good Friday hymn), a Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (on a “hidden subject”), and of course a Missa l’Homme armé (on a popular song), as did a dozen or more other composers.
During the High Renaissance (16th century) titles begin to emerge that indicated specific formal types independent of texts; these tell the prospective listener at least something of what to expect. The title Diferencias sobre Guardame las vacas refers to the popular song that is the theme, but otherwise indicates diferencias as a formal type, one variation followed by another. The chaconne, and later the passacaglia, arose as a continuous-variation form. In this period, dance forms generate musical titles, and these multiply in the Baroque era: sarabande, passepied, galliard, allemande, gigue, bourrée, all imply stylized group dances, and these usually have identifiable musical properties, such as specific meters (sarabande in slow triple meter, gigue in fast 6/8, etc.). From the middle 16th century, some titles suggest more style than form: prelude (praeludium), fantasia, toccata, etc., imply non-sectional extended pieces with a mixture of styles, and this tendency continued through Bach and Mozart into the 19th century and even beyond; a fantasia might be paired with a contrasting fugue, identifiable as to form but more uniform in style. In opera, another product of the 16th century, a title could mean a principal character or characters, or a main subject, but essentially functioned just like the title of an Elizabethan play, a name on a rural mailbox, or a coat of arms over the door of a shop. That’s also true of big titles like The Well-tempered Clavier, like the gold lettering on the binding of a multi-volume set, even though by itself it tells you almost nothing of what’s inside.
The later 17th century produced the first multi-movement forms: the Baroque suite (French for “succession”) of several movements, mostly dances, and generally unified in tonality; and the concerto, normally three movements, fast-slow-fast. The climax of the 18th century was the formal invention called the symphony, the orchestral version of the multi-movement sonata (for one or two instruments) or the generic string quartet, quintet, trio, etc. An experienced listener seeing the title “Symphony” would know pretty much what would follow: a first movement in sonata-allegro form, a slower second movement in a choice of forms, a minuet (a well-established dance form in triple meter), and a fourth movement in sonata form or rondo form or a hybrid of both. And sometimes a title might be attached to any of these generic forms: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 he called “La Passione,” and we don’t know the significance of that title; his Symphony no. 94 is called “Surprise” by everybody even if Haydn never gave it that nickname (in the German-speaking world it is called Paukenschlag (drumbeat); one wonders if Haydn would even have guessed where the “surprise” might be. But by this time, composers were beginning to make use of the title to inform the work — a device that might, in some way, presume to assist the understanding of the music without relying on a text. Nicknames came later (“Jupiter” Symphony, “Archduke” Trio, etc.), and even if not endorsed by the composer they remain useful. Nicknames are informal identifiers like tune names in hymn books (St. Anne, Ton-y-botel, etc.) though even these may change from hymnal to hymnal; but most parishioners, as well as singers, identify hymns by the first line of text if the hymnal itself doesn’t put a boldface title above the music.
Composers started making up descriptive titles before the 19th century, Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Sixth Symphony has titles for the individual movements, going so far as to provide programmatic details, telling a story, like the storm in the third movement. Berlioz took the hint and carried it to the extremes that are manifest in his Symphonie fantastique (1830). At about the same time, Schumann and Mendelssohn proclaimed the Charakterstück, or character piece — a direct ancestor of Claude Debussy’s impressionistic titles. Mendelssohn invented what he called “Songs without Words,” but gave titles to the individual pieces: “Lost Happiness,” “Hunting Song,” etc. Such titles had already existed for at least two centuries, as in Couperin’s harpsichord suites (ordres), in which the significance of a title, or at least an association of the title with any detail of the music, remains elusive even today (Les vergiers fleuris, Les baricades mystérieuses, etc.). Schumann’s Kinderscenen and Album for the Young include short pieces with closer associations and more perceptible meanings, especially when one becomes familiar with several of them. Liszt followed the same trend, on a somewhat grander scale (Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, etc.). Chopin avoided descriptive titles altogether; Brahms likewise, although he did sometimes include an epigraph. Elsewhere in the 19th century, Charakterstücke imply short pieces and salon music (“The Last Hope,” “La lisonjera,” “Kammenoi-Ostrov,” etc.). Mahler cast aside the programmatic titles of the individual movements when he finally got around to publishing his First Symphony.
Debussy’s first genuinely Impressionist pieces are the three Nocturnes for orchestra (1899) — Nuages, Fêtes, Sirènes, titles that are single words. Ten years later come the first book of Préludes for piano, with titles in parentheses at the end of each piece (… in mysterious format); these are descriptive, impressionistic, and in one case actually programmatic (… La sérénade interrompue), the only such instance in Debussy. Contrast Debussy’s careful taxonomy with Erik Satie’s studied eccentricity in titling, from the early Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, which are very specific in form, to the mid-period esoteric pieces (Pièces froides, Uspud) and post-Schola Cantorum “funny” pieces (Embryons desséchés, Obstacles vénimeux, Españaña, etc.; the latter a parody of Chabrier). Stravinsky wrote about Satie: “The titles are literary, and whereas Klee’s titles are literary, they do not limit the painting; Satie’s do, I think, and they are very much less amusing the second time.”
This comparison of Satie’s and Klee’s titles says a lot about the difference between painting and music. In any museum of modern art, you can find abstract, or even representational, paintings on which the little sign says “Untitled” next to the artist’s name. In music, beginning in the 20th century but only seldom before, there are musical works called Trois morceaux or Fünf Klavierstücke or something similar, and somewhat less frequently Composition for piano or for four instruments or whatever. Schoenberg’s publisher Peters asked him to provide a title for each of the Five Pieces for orchestra, op. 16 (1909). He did so, though at first reluctantly (later the third piece, Farben, colors, became “Summer Morning by a Lake,” as Debussy might have suggested).
Beginning in the stochastic period of music after World War II, titles can be readily found which signify anything, or nothing, or everything, or all four (Pithoprakta, Movements, Imaginary Landscapes, Momente, Chronochromie, etcetera).
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.