I began preparations for my "Use your Imagination" recital last month with a simple question, having to do with inspiration. Here was a nice little harpsichord piece by Rameau with a very odd title, "The Simpletons of Sologne." Why not simply call it "Sonata in D?" or "Variations on a nice little tune" or something equally bland, as is typical of a piece for keyboard. What gave rise to such a title?
Either because musicologists are not generally curious enough, or because little information is known about Rameau's early career at all, never mind the music he wrote, there was no authoritative way to answer the question.
By authority, I mean a way to silence any speculative thought by providing a definitive, final, unappealable, and therefore satisfying, answer.
Still, at the risk of seeming like the 4-year old who keeps asking why, I wanted to keep probing. What are such titles about? Do they really tell us anything about the music? Which came first, the notes or the fancy title? Did one affect the other in any appreciable, or useful, way?
There are enough examples of such pieces to fill several concerts, even if they are in the minority of the piano literature. And the answers are diverse. Sometimes the titles came first, or during, or later. Sometimes it is easy to hear a relationship between music and an idea represented in tones. Other times the music seems to have little to do with it. In the case of one celebrating the absurd, like Erik Satie, this is usually on purpose.
Is such an approach to music even a good idea? Does trying to flesh out a non-musical concept in notes lead to good music? Sometimes. And sometimes it leads to some terrible music. Schumann's "Kinderscenen" is an acknowledged gem of the literature; Kotzwara's "Battle of Prague" is a perfectly awful piece of music, though it was great fun sharing it with an audience: this is the first piano recital I remember which for about ten minutes nearly resembled "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Having answered the questions both ways (at least), or at least begun a survey of possible approaches, I hope I not only entertained, but I prompted people to ask questions, and therefore to engage with the music. I'm not finished with this question, but I am finished blogging about this concert. I'm thinking about a program involving music for the dance this summer. I hope you are looking forward to it. I am.