BEAUTY of music | classical nicknames

Crowned: January's Beauty of Music explores how some classical music like Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor") acquire their nicknames.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed numbering systems for identifying pieces of classical music. With Drew Petersen’s Premiere Series performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73, the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, I thought we would take a little time to explore nicknames—where they come from and how they impact the way we hear music.

For nearly every nickname there is a story. Some are legendary while others are pedestrian. Nicknamed works often capture the public imagination and allow some pieces to take on special popularity. Nearly anyone can identify the “Moonlight” sonata, Beethoven’s Opus 27, Number 2. However, this nickname came only after Beethoven’s death when the poet Ludwig Rellstab remarked on how the opening movement reminded him of moonlight on the water. Beethoven’s title page actually reads “Sonata quasi una fantasia,” or “Sonata like a fantasy,” a label he also applied to the less popular Op. 27, No. 1 Sonata.

While rehearsing Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2, pianist Garrick Ohlsson expressed to me his admiration for the piece and lamented that it is not as well known as the Opus 70, No. 1 Trio, the “Ghost” Trio. “Everyone prefers the named ones,” he remarked. This is probably most true for composers with large catalogues. Most of the best-known Haydn symphonies (he wrote more than a hundred), for instance, are nicknamed for a feature in the work: Farewell, The Bear, Surprise, Military, Drumroll, and The Clock.

Publishers have capitalized on this fact and at times have given nicknames to pieces without permission from the composer. Haydn actually only wrote two nicknames. Beethoven objected to the nickname “Emperor” that the first English edition carried on his 5th Piano Concerto. Beethoven, in fact, had a complicated history with rulers, which brings us to the story of his 3rd Symphony, the Eroica (a name he did embrace).

Though not a revolutionary, Beethoven sympathized with Napoleon and his more republican tendencies. His 3rd Symphony, for a number of reasons, was originally dedicated to Napoleon, and the title page of the autograph read Sinfonia Grande Intitulata Bonaparte. As the legend goes, though, when Beethoven learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, Beethoven rescinded this dedication, declaring Bonaparte a tyrant and scratching out his name so violently that he tore the paper:

Title page from Beethoven's 3rd Symphony

Beethoven then wrote a new dedication, per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo, or “to celebrate the memory of a great man.” It is from this dedication that the name eroica, or heroic, emerges. For a detailed account of Beethoven’s complicated relationship with Napoleon and the Eroica Symphony, check out Christopher T. George’s article “The Eroica Riddle: Did Napoleon Remain Beethoven’s ‘Hero?’”

Beethoven’s views on royalty were complicated: he undoubtably thought that some men were more valuable than others, he just happened to think that he was as royal as anyone else despite his low birth. He at times masqueraded as nobility by using the name Ludwig von Beethoven instead of van Beethoven (von is a German prefix that implies nobility, and van is actually a Dutch prefix that does not, though both words mean “of”).

Given Beethoven’s rather complicated history with royalty in general, the nickname “Emperor” did not sit well with him. The nickname comes from the grandness and scope of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. The majesty of the opening e-flat major chord in the orchestra and figurations in the piano announce that this is a work unlike others before it (most concerti do not introduce the solo instrument until after a long introduction, or “first exposition”). The Emperor Concerto is a regal work, even more so than the Mozart K. 503 we heard from Henry Kramer in September.

Some composers have quite a few nicknamed works. Many Romantic composers, though, wrote fewer numbered works (like sonatas, symphonies, trios, etc.) than the generations before (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven). Many of Schumann’s piano pieces, for instance, have only descriptive titles, like Carnival, Fantasiestücke or Kreisleriana.

Just for fun, here is a not-comprehensive list of some nicknamed pieces you may come across in a piano competition. Some may impact the way you listen, while others might just help you identify this great works.

Beethoven Sonatas

  • No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique,” was named by the publisher because of the pathos expressed by the work.
  • No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “The Tempest,” was said (perhaps dubiously) to be inspired by Shakespeare’s play by Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable secretary. Any claim by Schindler should be taken with a grain of salt, but nonetheless, the nickname has stuck.
  • No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, “Waldstein,” is one of several works dedicated to Beethoven’s friend, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein.
  • No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata,” was named for the work’s passionate character. The name came from a publisher a decade after Beethoven’s death.
  • No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux” or “Lebewohl,” was written to say farewell to his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolph, who was fleeing Vienna to evade Napoleon’s armies. This same archduke is the dedicatee of the “Archduke” Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 97, along with numerous other works by Beethoven.
  • No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier,” is so called because of its title page, which says “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier” or great sonata for the fortepiano. While all of Beethoven’s sonatas are written specifically for the piano, it is made clear that this piece simply cannot be performed on any other keyboard instrument, such as the still-popular harpsichord.


  • Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35, “The Funeral March,” contains the famous dirge in the third movement. Awards finalist Henry Kramer performed this piece in September.
  • Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15, “Raindrop,” was nicknamed by George Sand who was staying with Chopin when the piece was written in 1838. The repeating A flat is said to imitate the sound of rainfall.
  • Etude in G-Flat Major, Op. 10, No. 5, “Black Key,” uses only black keys for the right hand. This gives the piece a pentatonic flavor, which evokes folk music.
  • Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, “Revolutionary,” was written during the bombardment of Warsaw in 1831.
  • Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, “Heroic,” is grand in scale and requires a hero’s hand to execute!


  • Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537, “Coronation,” was one of two works Mozart performed at the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor. While Mozart’s K. 459 concerto was also played at this occasion, K. 537 has taken the nickname perhaps because of the trumpet and drums giving it a more regal character.
  • Piano Sonata in D Major, K 575, “The Hunt,” begins with what sounds like a horn call, evoking hunters on horseback.

Charles Ives

  • Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860, was named by the composer. The piece is his depiction of the transcendentalism associated with some of the thinkers in Concord: Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau).



2017 American Pianists Awards finalist Drew Petersen performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto Sunday, January 29 at the Indiana History Center. Tickets are available here. Show your enthusiasm for this piece on social media by mentioning #AmericanPianistsAwards #TeamDrew!




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