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If you've ever pondered the origins of the most famous nicknames in classical music — Mahler's Resurrection, Schubert's Trout Quintet, Dvorák's New World Symphony and other warhorses with catchy monikers — explore the pages that follow to unravel the mysteries of how these works were christened and why the names stuck. Each piece is illustrated with footage of the world's finest performers in concert: let Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Jacqueline Du Pré, Glenn Gould and other legends be your guide.
Beethoven Pastoral Symphony
Chopin Raindrop Prelude
Schubert Unfinished Symphony
Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony
Haydn Clock Symphony
Bach Air on the G-String
Mozart Jupiter Symphony
Haydn Surprise Symphony
Dvorák New World Symphony
Beethoven Eroica Symphony
Haydn Farewell Symphony
Górecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Beethoven Moonlight Sonata
Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony
Schubert Trout Quintet
Beethoven Emperor Concerto
Mahler Resurrection Symphony
There are 24 preludes in Chopin’s Opus 28 set: one in each of the 12 major and minor keys. After the composer’s death, the great pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow allocated a nickname to every one of these preludes. As was typical of the Romantic era, many of these are morbidly morose – they include Presentiment of Death, Suffocation, Desperation, Loss, Fear and Suicide! – and all are today largely ignored, with the exception of this one, which was presumably inspired by the gently insistent repetition of a single pitch throughout the piece. There is a legend that the piece was written during a storm, and that the "dripping" motif comes from a nightmarish vision the composer had of himself drowned in a lake, with icy water falling on his breast in heavy drops. This story comes from Chopin’s partner Georges Sand, but in recounting the incident, Sand didn’t actually specify which prelude she had been discussing with Chopin (and there are several melancholy ones which make use of repetitive motifs), so in the end, whether there are raindrops in this prelude or not is entirely a matter for our own imagination!
There is no ambiguity about this nickname! It’s a matter of simple fact that Schubert never finished writing this symphony. He completed just two movements; a third movement was written but not orchestrated. What is not known is why it was left unfinished. Schubert died tragically young, but it was not death which interrupted the composition of this work: in October 1822, when Schubert set it aside, he was in robust good health. Illness was soon to strike him down – before the end of the year he had contracted the syphilis which would leave him miserable and in great pain for much of the next seven years, and ultimately claim his life – but in those seven years he went on to compose a monumental Ninth Symphony. It has been suggested that Schubert abandoned the Unfinished because he felt he had composed himself into a corner with it, since all three movements are in triple time – an almost unheard-of occurrence in the symphonies of Schubert’s day. But this is only speculation. He certainly valued it highly enough to present it, incomplete, to the Graz Music Society, by way of thanks for an honorary diploma they bestowed upon him the following year.
The Sixth was Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. He conducted the first performance himself in October 1893; five days later, he fell ill with what seems to have been cholera; four days after that, Tchaikovsky was dead. The second performance of the symphony took place in St Petersburg just two weeks later: still shocked by the composer’s sudden death, audiences were disposed to interpret the symphony as his swan song, believing that the composer had somehow known about the fate that awaited him, and poured that premonition into the music. At a distance of more than a century, interpretations have taken a more rational turn, recognising that although Tchaikovsky only completed the symphony two months before he died, he had established its shape and themes half a year earlier. Tempting though it may be even now to read the symphony’s nickname, Pathétique, as evidence that Tchaikovsky foresaw his own fate, it’s just a trick of the language. We know the symphony by the French title Pathétique, which means poignant, full of pathos. Tchaikovsky, however, called the symphony Patetičeskaja, which is the Russian word for passionate or emotional.
Bach’s elegant Air, the second movement of a suite of pieces for orchestra, has nothing much to do with the G string. In fact, the violins playing the tune need never even touch the G string – the fourth and lowest-pitched string on the instrument – and barely even venture onto the third string, the D. The nickname comes from an arrangement of the piece made in the late 19th century by the German violinist August Wilhelmj, who transposed the music down a tone, from D major to C major, and then shifted the melody down an octave, so that the whole thing could be played without leaving the G string. Both versions are still commonly heard; when the Air is performed as part of the original suite, it is invariably Bach’s original setting which is used. When it is performed on its own, though, many conductors prefer Wilhelmj’s more Romantic version, which has a much warmer, richer timbre, the tune emerging from a cocoon of orchestral sound.
The mighty opening movement of Mozart’s Symphony No 41 – his last symphony – truly seems to be music fit for the gods of Olympus. With its noble bearing and blazing power, it seems almost inconceivable that the symphony could have any name other than Jupiter! The idea, however, came not from Mozart but from the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, more than a quarter of a century later. At least, so said Mozart’s son Franz Xaver, though we have no direct evidence linking the nickname with Salomon: the earliest known use dates from a Scottish concert program of 1918, three years after Salomon’s death. Whoever coined it, the name certainly stuck, and by 1823, it had appeared on the music itself: a piano arrangement by Muzio Clementi not only bore the title Jupiter, but also featured on the title page a drawing of the god seated on a throne in the clouds. Curiously, though, the nickname never took off in Germany, where the piece was instead known as The Symphony with the Fugal Finale.
Haydn wrote the Surprise Symphony in London, on his first English visit. He was 59 years old, and an international superstar, but clearly his wicked sense of humour had not in any way abated with the passing years. He did, however, claim that his intention was not to jolt drowsy listeners out of their daydreams: he simply wanted to "surprise the public with something new" – and also avoid being outdone by his student Pleyel, who was also presenting concerts in London at the time. The strategy paid off: 'Encore! Encore!' sounded in every throat, and Pleyel himself complimented me on my idea." The most extraordinary thing about the surprise, though, is not the punch that it packs, even to those who know what’s coming, but the way that it keeps us on the edge of our seats right until the end, wondering if it is going to happen again!
It was going to be called the Bonaparte Symphony. Politically speaking, Beethoven was no revolutionary – he had nothing against rank and privilege, he just believed they should be based on talent rather than birth – but he did, at least in theory, admire the recently created French Republic, which for him recalled the order and stability of ancient Rome. As First Consul, Napoleon seemed to embody those noble ideals; but when he declared himself Emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage: "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" He tore off the top of the title page, with its dedication to Bonaparte, and renamed the work Sinfonia Eroica: "Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man". So the story was told by Beethoven’s pupil and assistant Ferdinand Ries. The real situation seems to have been rather more complicated than that. Beethoven’s opinion of Napoleon was constantly changing: only a year before beginning work on the Bonaparte Symphony, Beethoven had flatly refused to write a sonata in Napoleon’s honour! His admiration for the principles of a French Republic had always to be balanced against the practical realities of conquering French troops on the march across Europe. And on a purely personal level, we know that Beethoven had been considering moving to Paris – and that the renaming of the symphony happened around the time when it became clear that the tour was not going to go ahead. But whatever his reasons, Beethoven’s final choice of title, Eroica, rings absolutely true to the strength and courage of the music itself.
It was the custom of the Hungarian Prince Nikolaus to spend each summer on his country estate of Eszterháza. His entire retinue of servants and attendants therefore found themselves obliged to do the same. Their families, however, were not permitted to accompany them, and as a consequence, the summer months came to feel very long. When the Prince one year decided to extend his country sojourn, the frustration was almost palpable. Haydn, in charge of the Prince’s music, came up with the solution. The next symphony he wrote carried a gentle sting in its tail: instead of the usual bright, upbeat ending, the final movement is quiet and dignified. One by one, the players reach the end of their parts, pack up their instruments, blow out their candle and leave the stage; in the end, only two violins are left playing quietly in the shadows. The Prince understood immediately; the very next day came the order to pack up and head home.
Symphonies don’t usually involve singers. In fact, symphonies don’t usually involve soloists at all: the very word "symphony" means "making sound together", and the idea of having one performer out the front, in the spotlight, as it were, radically changes the nature of the music. In his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, however, Górecki introduces the voice more like a new orchestral colour than a featured soloist. The composer has always insisted that the subject of this symphony is the bond between mother and child, but the texts he chose all focus on grief and loss, and so, despite Górecki’s protests, the symphony has been widely interpreted as being a statement on war. The second of the symphony’s three laments is particularly hard to interpret in any other way, as the text is an inscription scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Poland: "Oh mamma do not cry – Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always." Górecki later explained: "The whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: 'I’m innocent!' 'Murderers!' 'Executioners!' 'Free me!' 'You have to save me!' – it was all so loud, so banal. Adults were writing this, while here it is an 18-year-old girl, almost a child. And she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself, whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother, because it is her mother who will experience true despair."
This sonata actually has two titles: one given by Beethoven himself, and the other by the music critic Ludwig Rellstab, five years after Beethoven’s death. Rellstab’s is by far the more poetic: he claimed that the serenity of the first movement brought to mind the calm of Lake Lucerne under a moonlit sky. Beethoven’s title is drier and more composerly, and it is hardly ever used, but it tells us a lot about what Beethoven was trying to do. He described the piece as Quasi una fantasia – almost a fantasia: this draws attention to its unusual structure. Sonatas of Beethoven’s day typically began with a fast movement which had a fixed shape: two themes were presented in full, one after the other, then broken down into smaller elements which could be transformed in various ways to move away from the original material. The movement would then end with a return home to the original themes. It’s a structure which has a very strong sense of direction, of movement towards a conclusion which seems inevitable. In this sonata, however, Beethoven was explicitly rejecting that well-worn path, setting the music free to travel or linger at its own leisure.
As a young man, Mendelssohn had visited Scotland and been greatly impressed by the history that lingered in its ruined castles. He wrote at the time of plans for a Scottish Symphony, but it was nearly a decade before he settled down to serious work on the project. By the time it was completed, Mendelssohn had ceased to refer to the symphony as anything more than pure music, but many of the critics of the day were sure they could hear a scene being painted: Schumann thought it was Italy; another imagined German fairy tales! We, however, with the nickname Scottish to guide us, find it easy to recognise in the music the misty, veiled atmosphere Mendelssohn had described in his youthful letters.
There’s not much glamour or mystique in the nickname Trout. The music to which it refers, however, is delightful. The Trout (in German, Die Forelle) is the name of one of Schubert’s many songs: a light-hearted account of a fisherman trying to catch a fish in a mountain brook. Much of the charm of the song comes from the piano accompaniment, which burbles merrily along just like the water of the stream; the melody itself is light and unpretentious, perhaps even a little homely. Its very simplicity, however, made it the ideal basis for a set of variations, which is precisely what Schubert did with it in the fourth movement of his piano quintet. He dresses the melody with ever more elaborate variations and embellishments, passing it around the various instruments, taking it into new and unexpected emotional landscapes, reshaping and reimagining it so freely that at times the tune disappears altogether, absorbed into the evolving textures and harmonies. The final variation, however, returns us to the cheerful sound world of Schubert’s original song.
The majesty of this concerto, even in this quiet slow movement, seems perfectly expressed in its nickname, the Emperor. So it is ironic that Beethoven himself would have found the title abhorrent. Remembering his reaction when Napoleon declared himself emperor, it is difficult to imagine Beethoven wishing to immortalise any emperor in sublime music! The nickname is believed to have been bestowed on the concerto by John Baptist Cramer, who first published it in England.
Mahler began work on this symphony in 1888; by the end of 1893 he had completed the first three movements, but at that point he found himself stuck. He knew he wanted the last movement to include a choir, but he had no idea what words they should sing. Inspiration came at the funeral of his colleague Hans von Bülow. Bülow was a superb conductor, but also a deeply unpopular one, due to his complete lack of tact. (When Mahler had played the first movement of this symphony to Bülow, his response was that it made Tristan and Isolde sound like a Haydn symphony.) Bülow’s brutal honesty notwithstanding, Mahler was extremely upset when he died, in 1894. At the funeral, a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s hymn The Resurrection was sung: "It struck me like lightning, this thing," he wrote, "and everything was revealed to me clear and plain." He took the first two verses of Klopstock’s poem and added another 28 lines of his own to create the text of the finale; he then inserted before that a song he had written a year or so earlier, thus making the symphony five movements long. The first movement, he said, represented a funeral, and pondered the existence of life after death. The second movement recalls happy episodes from the life of the deceased. The third movement presents life as meaningless; the fourth expresses a wish to be released from that meaninglessness. The finale, however, transcends all the doubts of the earlier movements, to arrive at a radiant declaration that death is the gateway to a new life.