In a couple of reviews that I read this week of the new Lone Ranger movie, in reputable newspapers, I noted that the film makes use of the “William Tell Overture” (sic), a piece commonly thought to have been composed by Rossini.
He did no such thing, of course. The piece is correctly called the Overture to “William Tell” in AP Style, or the Overture to William Tell, when style guides using italics for titles are used. The same goes for every overture written for an opera — i.e. the Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” the Overture to “Gwendoline,” the Overture to “Candide,” etc., etc.
(Foreign titles are fine, of course. Write the Overture to “Le Nozze di Figaro,” or even better, the Overture to “Le nozze di Figaro” to your heart’s content. Only I, and a good many other writers, usually use English titles when a work is well known in that form.)
The punctuation of the titles of classical music pieces can get a little confusing. The easy rule, though, is that when a piece’s title is simply a type of piece — as in Symphony No. 1, or Nocturne No. 2, or Requiem — the title takes no quotes. If that same piece has a nickname, as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” the nickname takes quote marks, as you see.
Opera titles take quotes, of course. But an overture is a type of piece written to launch an opera, so it doesn’t take quotes. The case of concert overtures is different, though, and these pieces are usually given names, as in Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” and Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire Overture,” in which case the quotes are necessary. Sometimes you will see “Tragic” Overture or “Le Corsaire” Overture, which I suppose is OK, but then you run into things such as Britten’s “An American Overture,” which seems to me to require quotes around the entire thing. Which makes me feel that it’s best, for uniformity’s sake, just to use quotes (or italics, as the case may be) for entire concert overture titles.
On a related subject, opus and catalog numbers give editors and readers fits. They do not understand them, or even know what they signify. But they are mostly unnecessary when writing about classical music and I avoid using them whenever possible. (I see photographers using them in photo captions all the time, because they get the titles from the program book.) Simply put, my attitude is that, in most cases, a reader only needs to know what piece has been or will be performed, and most pieces are easily identified without opus or catalog numbers: Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is enough (or Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”), lose the opus number unless you are writing about the “Eroica” in a context of where it falls in Beethoven’s output.
Opus and catalog numbers are very helpful, however, in identifying many pieces — such as Haydn’s string quartets, Chopin’s piano pieces and much of Mozart’s, Vivaldi’s and Scarlatti’s music — because they happen to be the quickest way to do so with the work in question. Including the key of a piece in the title usually ends up being superfluous. Use the key as an identifier when necessary, or when the context requires it. Otherwise, forget about it.
See also: Premiere and premier