No more abbs: A musician pleads for verbal integrity

No more abbs: A musician pleads for verbal integrity


norman lebrecht

April 02, 2015

The 1982 Tchaikovsky silver-medallist Peter Donohoe, one of our foremost pianists, is increasingly appalled by musical abbreviations. (But he has some personal favourites). Read on….

Peter Donohoe  - English pianist, May 1993.


Perhaps I am showing my age, but actually I have never been able, and never will be able, to prevent myself cringing when I hear ‘in’ abbreviations for things that cry out for respect. In recent years, the most irritating one to creep into the wider vernacular – and thus to undermine the significance, the prestige, and the value to society of that which has been abbreviated – is ‘uni’ – meaning ‘university’. I know that I will be shouted down for objecting to it, but that is too bad. It makes the process of attending higher education seem so ordinary, so lacking in stature and, in the worse sense, ‘cool’.

But let’s face it, the music world is crammed full of ‘in’-speak. It makes my toes curl when I hear it, which I often do. This ‘in’-speak is of course now further degraded by its use in text messaging etc., in which it is beginning to seem wrong to type the full word.

And just to be clear, I am not confusing this with the debunking of preciousness or pretentiousness – something I believe it is important to do in order to establish a proper relationship between the composers, performers and listeners. In fact, ‘in’-speak is just the opposite; it IS complacent, precious, pretentious and – worse – exclusive of those who are not ‘in the know’. It comprises a peculiarly British way of showing that the users of such language are unimpressed by the stature of that to which they refer; that they find the things that non-musicians cannot fathom easy, because they are hard-bitten professionals who can take phenomenal difficulties into their stride, and so do not need to show respect – in fact, to do so would be embarrassing. To call Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30 ‘Rachmaninov Three’ is surely abbreviating it enough; ‘Rakkie Three’ is so appallingly embarrassing that it has made me come out in a cold sweat just from typing it – it is several steps too far. Apart from anything else, he wrote a Third Symphony as well, so even my own abbreviation of Rachmaninov Three is actually inadequate.

Here is a little compendium of some of those words and names that I have found to be an intrinsic part of the music world, and are thus regularly abbreviated in order for the abbreviator to bond with his/her colleague. [By the by, I get the impression that males are far more inclined to commit this sort of language atrocity. Why that should be, I cannot imagine.]

[If anyone can suggest why I am so bothered by this when almost no one else seems to be, I would be very grateful for your insight. It may well be that I have a problem; however, if I have, it is not that I am an incorrigible elitist – the sense that Tony Blair et al used the word for reasons of vote-cadging from the resentful – so please don’t tell me that. Neither am I old-fashioned.]

Banjos are not ‘jos’.

Clarinets are not ‘clarries’.

Horns are not ‘hooters’.

Trombones are not ‘bones’.

Pianos are not ‘joannas’ – I realise that this could be viewed as an exception, as it was originally Cockney. It still gets on my pip though – in the same way as when what I do professionally is described as ‘tinkling the ivories’, especially as ‘knocking the hell out of the plastics’ would be more accurate.

Cellos and Basses in unison do not comprise ‘cellibass’.

[I have not heard bassoons being referred to as ‘basses’, ‘oons’, or ‘fags’, but there may be good, although diverse, reasons to avoid all three…. ‘Boons’ might work; however, I hope to God it never does.]

Perhaps the most ubiquitous and shoe-splittingly toe-curling: Violins are not ‘fiddles’. [Or indeed any variant upon it e.g. ‘First fiddles’ or ‘second fiddles’. AAAARRRGGGHHH! – and who are the main culprits? – yes, indeed; violinists (not usually solo violinists, but large numbers of members of the fiddle sections (ugh!) of symphony orchestras.)]

Tchaikovsky is not ‘Chike’.

Rachmaninov is not ‘Rack’.

Shostakovich is not ‘Shosters’ or ‘Shost’.

[What would the kind of person who uses any of the above three call Messiaen?]

[I appreciate that Castelnuovo-Tedesco is something of a mouthful, and would need shortening to ‘Tesco’ or something similar, should his works become mainstream; but is Tchaikovsky really too long a name for us to be bothered with saying it properly? They certainly never say ‘Chike’ in Russia (‘Чайк?) or anywhere else outside the former British Empire in my experience. Perhaps it is names with three or more syllables that inspire this phenomenon, in which case almost all Russian composers have had it.]

Sibelius’ Second Symphony is not ‘Sib Two’.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is not ‘Rakkie Three’.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata is not ‘Prok Six’.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is not ‘Shosters Five’. In particular, it is not ‘Shostie 5’ – that one makes me nearly gag.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – I can take ‘The Rite’, particularly as this is the one exception I can think of for which the abbreviation does get used in other languages: ‘Le Sacre’, ‘Vesna’ (‘Весна’), etc. It somehow does not seem exclusive to call it that – difficult to say why.

Don Juan is not ‘The Don’ – Apart from anything else, this ludicrous epithet could refer to Don Quixote, Don Carlos, Don Giovanni and probably many others. [I obviously don’t mind bering referred to as ‘The Don’ myself, but that is another story; in any case, no one does refer to me in that way. Nigel Kennedy came closest when he insisted on calling me ‘Donny’, which, actually, like, man, I can well do without, if that’s cool with you, Kenny.]

Here are some that I do actually like, by virtue of their witticism, which is obviously very different to complacency.

Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus: ‘Twenty Peeps’ (thanks to Howard Hartog for this one)

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro: ‘Introduction and Fast Bit’ (courtesy of Andrew Penny)

Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung: ‘Turd in the Clearing’ (anon. – probably a drunken RNCM bone-player)

Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten: ‘The Constipated Woman’ – (I couldn’t help but slip in one of my own…)

Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra: ‘Also Sprach Zarashoetring’ – I particularly like this because if you fully translate it into English it almost becomes ‘Thus Spake Eddie Shoestring’, reminding me of a 1980s TV series I used to enjoy. (anon.)

John Faulds’ Dynamic Triptych: ‘Symphonic Dipstick’ (Jeremy Hayes)

Any contributions would be very welcome.


  • Stephen says:

    “Sonata for Bangers and Clangers” (Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion).

  • Graeme Hall says:

    I imagine this is apocryphal – though I would love to lean that it is true – but was there not once the story of a programme writer in the US who was told cut out the abbreviations? All went well until it was announced that the orchestra would be performing Bach’s Massachusetts in B minor…

  • Douglas Cairns says:

    In the film Brassed Off, Pete Postlethwaite announces a rehearsal of Rodrigo’s Concerto de Orange Juice.

  • Chris Golding says:

    An abbreviation too far – I was once at a performance in Gloucester Cathedral of a Schubert Mass and the in programme the final section should have been listed as Agnus Dei but the ‘n’ was unfortunately missing.

  • Stephen says:

    There’s Debussy’s “Girl with the lines of a horse”.

  • Larry W says:

    The common pairing of Cavalleira Rusticana and Pagliacci is shortened to Cav-Pag. But then, most operas would benefit from shortening.

    • Anonne says:

      When we go to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini we refer to it as the the Rach’n’Pag.

  • Pedro says:

    Your two Strauss examples combine nicely into “Tod und Verstopfung”….

    • Gerhard says:

      In Germany the more common version is “Tod durch Erkältung”, but the constipation may really evoke the piece better.

  • Alexander says:

    A few choral ones that come to mind:

    In the Bleak Midwinter: In the BMW

    Any of Howells’s services for King’s College, Cambridge: Coll Reg (for “Collegium Regale”)

    Any Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis: Mag and Nunc

    Any Te Deum: TD

  • Mr Oakmountain says:

    You probably know Delius “On cooking the first hero in spring”.
    Or, for German speakers, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Schilder einer Baustelle”.

  • Mark Barrett says:

    Ein Heldenleben – Either, it’s a hell of a life, or Life is hell – for those who have, shall we say. good days and bad days.

    In parts of New York CIty, one might find Tod(d) and the Dame – and over here, speaking (as one does of course) of Schubert, one would be hard put to get everyone together to sing the Mass in a Flat.

    Enough already, I hear you all groan. I must set aside at the very least the rest of the holoday weekend to hear Havergal Brian’s 1st Symphony – “The Interminable”

  • Kentley says:

    There is a ribald twist on Purcell’s Dido, but it is far too randy to publish.

  • ira says:

    in the u.s. we say tickling the ivories; tinkling might involve urination.

  • Mark Barrett says:

    I agree with Peter, some of the joke names can curl the toes! But, as the splendid Peter Shickele, amongst a few fine musical humorists, would agree, we can have some fun too.

    Ein Heldenleben – it’s a Hell of a Life, or Life is Hell, depending on whether one is having a good or a bad day.

    In parts of New York City, one might find Tod(d) and the Dame in a bar – speaking of Schubert(as one does), over here we might find it hard to get all the forces together to sing the Mass in a Flat.

    Enough already, I hear you all groan – I must set aside at least the rest of the holiday weekend to listen to Havergal Brian’s First Symphony, “The Interminable”

  • James of Thames says:

    Many years ago, when rehearsing Tod und Verklärung with Michael Gielen, he talked so excessively that the piece was thereafter known as Tod und Erklärung.

  • David Boxwell says:

    P.Don (Embrace it, dawg!)

  • Stephen Llewellyn says:

    I returned to the United Kingdom after many years abroad and positively shuddered when I heard the ubiquitous reference to ‘Uni’ for university. It still makes me cringe – and for the very reasons Mr Donohoe puts forward. I recall W.S.Gilbert’s annoyance at the use of the word ‘lunch’. “Nobody” he said “refers to ‘brek’ or ‘din’ ; the word is luncheon!”

  • Kim Sommerschield says:

    just been enjoying BBC4’s instructive documentary on Monteverdi’s Vespa..

  • Emma says:

    In relation to an ad hoc gig I was booked for: “It’s a ‘pro’ band”…

    Which immediately told me it wasn’t… (packs wire music stand and ear plugs, goes to date wearing black stuff, including thermals and comfortable black shoes)…

  • William Safford says:

    “That’s Brahms’ Third Racket!”

    –Basil Fawlty

  • Peter Donohoe says:

    Well – it seems that during my absence [I was doing a gig with a band up in Scotland – the musos and the carver were really cool, by the way. The tune was a bit of squeaky-gate by some Scottish bloke…], this thread has gone even further off-topic. Very entertaining though it is to read all the contributions, it has largely become an amusing list of nicknames for universally accepted great masterpieces.

    The original point was that abbreviations or epithets that non-club-members would understand – rather than affectionate nicknames – make me cringe because they understate the value and the importance of that which is being referred to. It amounts to embarrassment – a refusal to be awestruck by its greatness.

    If two musicians refer to the Rach-Pag, or some other convenient abbreviation that both understand, or indeed if a conductor refers to a work using an abbreviation that everyone understands, it is one thing.

    If they refer to a work, and instrument or some other concept using something like fiddle for violin, it is first of all not an abbreviation, and it is not something that expresses the value of having the honour of being a musician – it is a fear of calling it what it is, and all the awesomeness that I feel we should associate with being involved with great art. It gives the same impression to me as the one I get when I see an orchestral player with his or her feet crossed, or chewing gum, or reading a magazine in rehearsal, or even in a recording session.

    Thus, the way I really want to express the bit in brackets from my opening paragraph is: I was up in Scotland doing a concert with the increasingly brilliant and totally committed BBCSSO conducted by my old friend and colleague, the excellent Andrew Litton, playing the Second Piano Concerto of one of the UK’s finest and most original composers, James MacMillan. Nice gig.