Skip to Main Content

Preferred Titles in Music

Distinctive Titles

When a composer gives a composition a title that is not the name of a musical form, that non-form, or distinctive title, in its original language, is used as the preferred title. Works that have distinctive titles include operas, oratorios, ballets, and many other types of vocal and stage works. Here are some well-known examples from the dramatic repertoire:

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, 1756-1791.
The Magic flute : an opera …
Stravinsky, Igor, 1882-1971.
The Firebird (l'Oiseau de feu) : a ballet …
Handel, George Frederic, 1685-1759.
Messiah : a sacred oratorio …

Many instrumental compositions also have distinctive titles. For example:

Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750.
Brandenburgische Konzerte
The Six Brandenburg concertos …
Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750.
Wohltemperierte Klavier
48 Preludes and fugues (The Well-tempered Clavier) …
Brahms, Johannes, 1833-1897.
Ungarische Tanze
Hungarian dances : for orchestra …
Stravinsky, Igor, 1882-1971.
Symphonies d'instruments a vent
Symphonies for wind instruments …

Note that although the Bach Brandenburgische Konzerte are "Concertos," and Stravinsky's Symphonies d'instruments a vent are "Symphonies," these titles were originally used by the composers as distinctive titles. These titles, therefore, are used in their original languages as the preferred titles.

You can see that it is helpful to know something about the original language of a work. But do not panic!

If you perform a title or keyword search using a popular title of a work, the catalog will retrieve editions of the work that have the popular title on the title page. Such a record also will include the correct preferred title of the work, which you can use to perform a title search to retrieve all editions of the work that are held by the library.

Single Movements from Larger Works

Sometimes a single movement or section of a larger work is published or recorded separately from the whole composition. For example, the "Hallelujah chorus" from Handel's oratorio Messiah may be published separately for performance by a church choir; or the movement "Claire de lune" from Debussy's Suite bergamasque for piano is sometimes performed separately. In a preferred title for such separately published or recorded movements, the entire work is named first, and then the part is named.

Handel, George Frederic, 1685-1759.
Messiah. Hallelujah
The Hallelujah chorus, from Messiah …

Debussy, Claude, 1862-1918.
Suite bergamasque. Clair de lune
Clair de lune : from the Suite bergamasque for piano …