The trials and tribulations of naming pieces

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – Shakespeare

Naming pieces is always a tricky area. Some title pieces before they’ve even written them, others spend ages searching for the perfect short description after they’ve completed it. Some prefer generic, potentially historical titles, while others go for unique ideas that could reflect one of many things – meaning behind the piece, their mood when they were composing it, or perhaps something completely abstract. It’s somewhat simpler if you’re using a text or working on music for theatre or media in some form, as you often share titles.

Enter stage right a piece I wrote a couple of years ago (but recently revised). A solo piece for keyboard, it had a 7/8 moto perpetuo ostinato in the bass which continued for a significant portion of the A section. To contrast this I stumbled across a calm, reflective idea which became the second section of the piece, providing some moments of quiet before the continuous quavers returned. At the time I was working as an Assistant Organist, and spent quite a bit of time playing around with the ideas on the local church organ (why not?). The madness of the first section, as I played it, reminded me of a tempestuous storm. The second section, in contrast, felt like a still eye of the storm. A few of the people who had heard the piece as it was being developed seemed to like the idea, so the name stuck – Tempestuous.

As I like to allow my performers a lot of flexibility, I was very vague in terms of dynamics and tempi. I exchanged a few emails with a variety of people about this piece, and one organist came back to me saying that they felt the title really didn’t suit their interpretation. This is a concept that I hadn’t previously properly considered. Of course, where freedom and flexibility are allowed and interpretation encouraged, a title pertaining to a particular image may not necessarily suit every version of the piece.

What to do? In this case, I was lucky. I could see the performer’s frustration, and went back to the original notes where I found Moto Perpetuo was cited as a potential title. With no specific imagery other than lots of movement, this title was ideal.

How to avoid this issue in the future however? One option is to use more generic (traditional?) titles such as ├ętude, impromptu, sonata in G and divermentos. I’ve used a few of these over the years; however mentors and teachers at university and beyond were always complimentary of my titling.

Will I change the way I title my pieces? No. Will I be more cautious when applying those with heavy interpretational implications to pieces that could have multiple interpretations? Definitely.

And as far as Moto Tempestuous Perpetuo goes? Either title works. Whatever floats your tempestuous perpetual motion boat!

Moto Perpetuo will be performed as part of the Moot Hall’s lunchtime recital series on Tuesday 28th July at 1pm by organist Ian Ray, alongside a new work by Alan Bullard.

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