(I think I started this piece when I was talking with some friends about classical music pieces with titles at least 3 years ago.)

Program music is obviously more accessible than abstract music since they direct your imagination to some extent. My friends and I were talking about some popular titles of Beethoven’s, such as Moonlight and Für Elise. Beethoven have quite a few pieces with names, but few (Eroica, Pathetique, Lebewohl) came from the composer himself. “Moonlight” was dubbed by a German poet after Beethoven’s death, and I found some spotty references on the legend that Beethoven composed it for a blind girl, which was in our textbook (I think). “Für Elise” may be a mistranscription, but Beethoven did give the piece a name (dedication) himself. It’s really funny that it’s used by garbage trucks–I’ve got to confirm that from a Taiwanese. If you know anyone from Iran, please ask him/her about it as well. Beethoven would be fuming in his coffin if he knew that!

Two program pieces in particular that I loved as a kid, and still do today: Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Together with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, these are sometimes found on the same recording as great materials for introducing children to classical music.

Everybody knows the “The Dying Swan” ballet, based on one of the few non-satirical pieces in the Carnival. I kind of remember that my mum played the “Pianist” piece when I was reluctant to practice the piano, saying something like “see? Even the boring scale is used in a composition, so you should be happy practicing”. I was too dumb to find out the nature of the Carnival pieces, and it may not be a glorious thing to be paraded along with other “lowly” animals like donkey and tortoises…

Peter and the Wolf is a much more coherent piece, and I have an LP of Bernstein/NY Philharmonic with wonderful narration from Bernstein. Some disparage Bernstein as a showman without true musical merit (EMI’s Great Conductors of the 20th Century series doesn’t even include him). I haven’t done enough listening to distinguish different conductors and orchestras, but I think Bernstein’s influence and popularity was great for classical music, especially in the US, being one of the few great American-born conductors.

The melodies and instrumentation and rhythms are truly great in the piece. Each instrument and its corresponding character reinforce each other so perfectly that I would actually not recommend playing this to a child as the first classical piece s/he hears: the impression and association would be too strong. The theme for Peter is so gleeful and uplifting that it should be a universal anthem for 10-year-old boys–I can so see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn whistling the tune while skipping around.

When it got to mid Romaticism, more pieces have titles than not, so I’ll only mention some pieces that I’m more or less familiar with (I think I intended to comment on each piece, but that would take 30 years). Note that none is opera, vocal (solo and choral), or ballet music, because they have specific designation by definition.

  • Vivaldi: Four Seasons
  • Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. (The original composition is for piano only, and Ravel orchestrated it later.)
  • Richard Strauss’s tone poems
  • Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 From the New World
  • Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
  • Debussy: La Mer; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  • Mahler: symphonies (none of the names for his symphonies came from him); The Song of the Earth