how do professionals refer to specific, but unnamed classical pieces?


i’m listening to a banger classical music playlist right now and once again i’m confronted with the question: how do i refer to them to others? how do i even look them up on youtube? for example, i love a piece by vivaldi that i believe is fairly popular. spotify and youtube list it as “Violin Concerto in G Minor, RV 315 “L’estate””. that’s not exactly catchy, and just looking for “vivaldi g minor” brings up a ton of stuff on YouTube. it’s no different with all the other big boys – bach, mozart, brahms… do people who regularly have to do with classical music actually memorise those absurd strings of seemingly random numbers? if i want to tell someone i love a piece by Bach, do i say “check out Bach’s 1st Prelude in C Major, BWV 846!”? that can’t be right, can it?

In: Other

Yeah, that’s how you refer to these old pieces. Some of them have colloquial nicknames or subtitles like “Emperor” (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 in E Flat Major Op73), or Vivaldi’s “L’estate” (Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 8, RV 315 “Summer”) but most don’t.

So, yeah. You just have to memorize the full names of pieces if you want to refer to them.

Well, yes. That’s the full citation of the work. The BWV stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” which is the “notebook” where he published this prelude and the page (?) number.

But mostly you could instead ask Spotify for the “Vivaldi violin Concerto In G minor” or “bachs 1st prelude in c major” and get the right one. Of course there are also different orchestras and stylistic interpretations of each of these. But just asking for either “violin concerto” or “Vivaldi violin concerto in g” isn’t going to get you there, since that isn’t specific enough.

Sadly, the masters didn’t use unique catchy titles like, “Vaseline” or “welcome to the jungle”. So Vivaldi or Bach has lots of violin concertos. And lots of works in G minor. Lots of preludes. Etc.

“RV” and “BWV” are catalogs of known works by Vivaldi and Bach respectively. RV 315 and BWV 846 are the catalog and number in that catalog of a single unique work. So “Bach’s prelude in C major” describes the work (and other works), “BWV 846” singles out the specific “prelude in C major” you’re interested in.

Luckily, things started to get much easier from the Classical period. Mozart’s works, for example, are often referred to by the Kochel number, K576, K545, etc. Schubert’s works also have corresponding D numbers, although they aren’t used as often. If one is serious about classical music, mentioning the K number for Mozart’s works is enough.

In the Romantic period, most composers wrote program music, ie. music with “themes/programs”, so you just say “Years of Pilgrimage – 1st year”, “Dante Symphony” and people will know you’re referring to Liszt’s music.

For violin concertos, piano concertos, etc. , it’s still No. 1 in A major, No. 2 in D minor., but then composers didn’t write that many concertos (obviously because of the complexity). Interestingly, most of the “big boys” only wrote one or two famous concertos for each instrument:

Chopin: 2 piano concertos
Liszt: 2 piano concertos
Brahms: 1 violin concerto, 2 piano concertos
Tchaikovsky: 1 violin concerto, 1 piano concerto (plus 2 more I’ve never heard anyone likes)

The list goes on and of course it’s not exhaustive (there are other concerto-like works written by the above composers). My point is when you refer to music after the Baroque period, you can talk more like a normal person: “Hey, did you listen to that guy play Brahms’ violin concerto? It was horrible!” “Chopin’s piano concerto no.1 is sooo much better than his second.”