Naming names

Chris White, writing for Slate, decries the practice of referring to canonic male composers – Beethoven, Schumann, Bartók – simply by surname, while giving full names of female composers, composers of color and others of “marginalized identities:”

“When we say, ‘Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Brahms and Edmond Dédé,’ we’re linguistically treating the former as being on a different plane than the latter, a difference originally created by centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism,” White writes.

He then notes, parenthetically, that “Dédé was a freeborn Creole composer whose music packed concert halls in Europe and America in the mid-19th century,” a helpful addition given that few listeners today are familiar with Dédé. White does not go on to explain that Johannes Brahms was a Hamburg-born composer and pianist who settled in Vienna and became a towering figure in Western music, presumably because most classical-music aficionados already know that.

He also does not note that most concert program books list full names of composers – conventional full names, anyway. Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, the composer’s “proper” (baptismal) name, is rarely encountered. (Amadeus or Amadè, meaning “love God,” was a middle name he gave himself.)

My practice of identifying composers, like that of most other music writers, has been to identify well-known composers by last name if no other well-known composer shares that name.

If a surname is shared, I specify: Johann Sebastian (or J.S.) Bach, to distinguish the father from his three prominent composer sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel (or C.P.E.), Johann Christian (or J.C.) and Wilhelm Friedemann (or W.F.); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, if his father, Leopold, or his son, Franz Xaver, are mentioned; Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss II, to distinguish these (unrelated) composers from each other (and Johann Strauss II from his prominent composer father, after whom he was named); Robert Schumann, if I also mention his spouse, Clara.

Speaking of whom, I normally use Clara Wieck Schumann, as much of her significant compositional work predated her marriage. I also refer to Amy Beach, not Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, the name she used in deference to her proper-Bostonian husband during his lifetime – she outlived him by many years and wrote most of her music after his death.

Some cases require extra, not-to-be-confused-with clarification: Should works by John Taverner and John Tavener be featured in a program of English choral music, I would be sure to check my spelling and to note that the former was active in the 16th century and the latter in the late-20th and early 21st centuries. It also would be relevant to note that Taverner wrote Catholic liturgical music, while many of Tavener’s religious/spiritual works reflected his mid-life conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

I generally refer to living and recently deceased composers by their (conventional) full names.

If a composer is “iconic” (meaning, usually, long-dead), common practice has been and probably will continue to be identification by last name: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky. All male, all white, to be sure. That’s already changing – no-first-name references to Beach, Joplin, Ellington and Takemitsu have become fairly common. Future music lovers may refer to Zwilich and Shaw, Eastman and Montgomery, Esmail and Fairouz. For now, though, those references would be mysterious to most readers without full names and a good deal more identification and context.

No -ism need be inferred.