Canonical classical music titles
April 1, 2012 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Whats the proper way to 'normalize' the titles of classical musical works when there doesn't seem to be any consistently used name?

I know metafilter attracts a lot of library and information sciences people, so hopefully this beanplating will be up their alley.

I'm interested in the 'proper' way to organize song titles in a collection of recordings in some canonical, normalized, or at least consistent way, to make it easier to pull up different recordings of the same piece side-by-side. Particularly Western classical/art music. I'm hoping for some relatively objective approach, but I'm afraid I'll have to toss that out the window.

Take for example Bach's first cello suite. There seem to be several possibilities.
1. Use the name Bach labeled the piece with. There's no manuscript in Bach's hand, so we can't know for sure.
2. Try to approximate what Bach what would have used, for example "Suite für Violoncello solo Nr. 1".
3. Try to translate that into my native language, for example ''Suite for Solo 'Cello No. 1".
4. Stick to the names used by the recordings. But each recording seems to use something slightly different. And I'd like to make it easy to find different recordings of the same piece.

Even if we can do #1, it doesn't always produce useful results. Like all the Bach keyboard pieces labeled 'Praeluden'. So you can shove the key into the title to make them less ambiguous, but even thats not enough, because some of them are in the same key. Also, it creates issues if you have recordings that were transposed. What do you label 'Minuet in G' if transposed into D? 'Minuet in G in D?' You could call it 'Minuet in D', but then it looks like a different piece, and what if there's already another 'Minuet in D'?

So then you can add the catalog number to clarify, but that seems odd to me, because you're adding things to the title the composer wouldn't have recognized, since the whole BWV numbering system was invented long after Bach's death.
posted by Hither to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you talking about a collection of digitized files in something like iTunes? I'm not a librarian, but I think the 'proper' answer here is to organize them using whatever system of naming will make it easiest for you, the sole primary user of your personal collection of recordings, to pull up the recordings you want to hear. After all, Bach wouldn't have recognized the concept of a 'recording' either!

If you want to beanplate this beyond answering the question of how to make your collection useful and accessible to yourself, there's been discussion of this kind of thing (and more professionally-oriented variants) on the email list of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.
posted by bubukaba at 11:07 AM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: Opus number is I think the way to go. There are generally never pieces of the same title in the same opus. "Opus x, No. x"

Bach, as you mentioned, as well as Beethoven and Mozart have their own catalog system in place already. Do you not want to use those for some reason?

So then you can add the catalog number to clarify, but that seems odd to me, because you're adding things to the title the composer wouldn't have recognized, since the whole BWV numbering system was invented long after Bach's death.

The intent of the numbering system isn't to change the names of Bach's pieces. Most of his music (and classical music in general) is not given a specific name, just what it is (sonata, barcarolle, etude) and the key. If you call it what it is, and add the BWV number there could be no mistaking which specific piece it is.

Although sometimes names are applied after the fact to famous pieces that, while not usually coined by the composer, stick in the minds of the public and similarly denote without doubt which piece it is. For instance, Beethoven's piano sonatas. He didn't name them Pathetique or Moonlight, but those names are stuck forever anyway.

Also, I haven't heard of anyone transposing classical pieces for performance or recording. The qualities of the key and the range required by the piece are considered carefully by a composer. If a singer was involved, it is possible that something would be transposed, but certainly not a solo piano piece, or any instrument whose tonal range is not dictated by the limitations of the body of the human playing it. So that would be a pretty rare problem, I think.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I work part-time as a music cataloger; only been doing this for a few months, so I can help you a little bit, although I'm not 100% sure on all the specifics (some people dedicate whole dissertations to these kinds of questions). What follows is standard practice for academic libraries, but probably too complicated/annoying for a personal music collection.

In music cataloging, works are normally entered by composer, then genre, medium, then key or opus number (or both). It differs from composer to composer, and there's no one "right" way to do it for any specific composer. A few examples:

Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Suites, violoncello, BWV 1008, D minor

Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Fugues, harpsichord, BWV 953, C major.

Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827. Symphonies, no. 5, op. 67, C minor.

This works for libraries, where the focus is on the musical "work" as a whole unit. If you are cataloging items at the CD or score level, this will do. However, it sort of falls apart in an iTunes type scenario where you need to catalog specific tracks; there's not an agreed upon way to do this.

For a specific movement from Beethoven's 7th symphony, it might read:

Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827. Symphonies, no. 7, op. 92, A major. Poco sostenuto.

but the way many classical music CDs divide their tracks, there's not always an easily identifiable subtitle for that track.

Additionally, as you noted, there's the issue that works are often transposed or arranged for a different group of instruments. In cataloging, this is reflected in the title as "arr." for arranged. There would be additional info in the catalog record to reflect what it is arranged for, but this is hard to cram in the title. So Liszt's piano version of Beethoven's 6th symphony would be:

Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827. Symphonies, no. 6, op. 68, F major; arr.

If this sort of classification works for you, you can explore more at the website for the Library of Congress authority records.
posted by kingoftonga86 at 11:24 AM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've run into the same problem when trying to rip and tag classical CD's. I've got a system that works for me. It might leave out some useful data (date of composition, key, tempo in some cases), but it's got what I'll likely be searching for (composer, piece, conductor, physical CD, etc.). I know this isn't exactly what you're asking, but it's how I've been categorizing my recordings:

Artist: Since it's certainly possible to have more than one recording of a given work, I put the conductor and orchestra or group or performer here. I usually put soloists elsewhere. Conductor's full name: Orchestra's full name

Album: This is where I put the name of the piece as a whole. Even if it's a compilation CD and it's just one movement from a symphony, say, I'll put the name of the work. I also include the composer so I don't have a million tracks in my Symphony #5 album. The conductor and orchestra are included, too. Composer's last name: Work in X Major, "Nickname," op. 11, CAT 22 (ALTCAT 33) (Conductor's last name, short form of orchestra's name)

Track name: This one can the hardest. If the song or movement has a proper name, I'll use that of course. Tempo markings are the second choice, especially if a lot of recordings of the same work publish the same track names. If there are movements I put in the number. Check out the pictures for examples.

Composer is the composer, date is the date of the recording, track number is the track number on the CD, grouping is the catalog number of the CD, and I put soloists or other information (pipe organ, choirs) in the comments field.

The first example is pretty straightforward. Each song is one track, Mahler gave them each proper names, Das Lied von der Erde is unambiguous, there are two soloists, and they're the only thing on that CD.

This one is a bit trickier. Haydn's "Te Deum" is on the same CD as Mozart's Great Mass so the grouping is the same, but the album and composer fields are different. The year and comments happen to be different, too.

Here's one of the Great Mass tracks from that CD. In this case, the track names are Movement number. Movement name: First lyrics if needed (tempo). The track number field takes care of keeping them in the right order.
posted by clorox at 1:09 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: What's the context? What are you trying to do? Are you organizing your iPod? Are you a librarian? A music critic? Are you promoting a concert? In the absence of any context to help us answer the question in a way that would actually be useful to you, all I can say is:

- I prefer numbers that refer to the specific type of piece (Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Mozart's Symphony No. 41) over anything else. They're the most informative information, and it's easier to keep track of numbers since there are fewer of them. Even with someone extraordinarily prolific like Mozart, it's easier to keep track of his 41 symphonies than the "K." numbers for his over 600 compositions.

- "Opus" numbers have their pros and cons. They give you valuable information, since "Op. 3" is probably a composer who's just starting out, whereas "Op. 98" suggests a mature composer. I like having the Opus number as an extra piece of information, but I prefer it not to be the only way to identify the piece since it's hard to keep track of so many numbers.

- If the composer only wrote one of that type of thing, you can just say "Schubert's String Quintet," "Mendelssohn's Octet," etc.

- The composer-specific numbers (Mozart's "K.," Bach's "BWV") can be used to the extent they're helpful in distinguishing among a large number of compositions. The BWV numbers for Bach are not very informative since they're not chronological (Mozart's "K." numbers are).

- I disfavor key signatures. They have little significance to anyone except those with a strong sense of absolute pitch. As someone who has strong relative pitch but not absolute pitch, the only part of the key that matters to me is major vs. minor. They start to lose relevance once you get into the Modern era, so key signatures can't be the whole solution. Anyone who wanted to refer to pieces primarily by key signature would have to deal with the hassle of keeping tracking of the fact that "Beethoven's D minor symphony" does identify a unique symphony but that "Mozart's G minor symphony" is ambiguous, and so on.

- There is no such thing as "Minuet in G in D." But that itself isn't a huge problem; when there's a transposed piece (which isn't the norm), you can say something like "Minuet in G major (transposed to D major)."

- Nicknames like "Jupiter" Symphony and "American" Quartet are helpful for breaking through the monotony of numbers and key signatures.

- Any names can be freely translated. I see no reason to use "für Violoncello solo" in an English-speaking context. The only titles I would keep in the original language would be descriptive ones where it would be out of the ordinary to translate it. For instance, if you want to say Debussy's "The Sea," you're free to do so, but you should realize that many people will be briefly confused before saying, "Oh, you mean 'La Mer'?"

- The nomenclature used on a specific recording has no special significance. To use your example of Bach's cello suites, there are so many recordings of them and I'm sure there's so much variation in the naming — anyone is free to translate the names into their preferred nomenclature. There's no reason to be faithful to the arbitrary decisions made by someone who happened to write a CD booklet.
posted by John Cohen at 2:24 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The concept in cataloging that deals with this sort of thing is the "Uniform Title" which is designed to provide authority control for works that are published under several titles, but which you want to be able to retrieve together (this is not just for music, it is also used for things like Shakespeare's plays where different editions can have variant titles on the cover).

For more info see the Wikipedia or, for much more info on how it is done OCLC.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:29 PM on April 1, 2012

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