Why would a composer take a middle name?

Why would a composer take a middle name?


norman lebrecht

December 05, 2020

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Composers grow middle names to protect themselves against rivals of similar plumage. There were so many Bachs around in JS’s time that he was mostly known as Sebastian to ward off all the useless Johanns.

Here, too….

Read on here.

And here.

En francais.

In Czech.



  • V. Lind says:

    Your closing line reminds me of Fran Lebowitz: “My idea of the great outdoors is the distance between my front door and a taxi.”

  • Bone says:

    I did listen to the “ocean” one.

  • Marfisa says:

    Just a wee squeak in case anyone takes your comment about the Bach family seriously: it was quite normal not to use the first name if there were others to choose from, and some of the other Johanns were by no means useless. Johann Ludwig, Johann Christoph, Johann Christian, all excellent composers (my apologies to any I may have missed).

    • David K. Nelson says:

      There were enough fine Baroque musicians named Johann Walther to create similar issues of confusion.

      And there always seems something a bit truncated about referring to “Wolfgang Mozart.”

      But it is true that very often use of a middle name or middle initial can seem somehow adolescently pretentious and can make the person a figure of fun. Those Americans of a certain age will remember Maynard G. Krebs of television fame. He thought the G made him sound smarter. Then again that seemed to have worked for Robert Q Lewis (the Q stood for nothing and was made up, but that and the glasses gave him the aura of being rather intellectual). I use my middle initial because at least at one time the middle west was crawling with David Nelsons who conducted, composed or played the viola and it seemed useful to differentiate.

      I always wondered if the excellent concert violinist James Oliver Buswell IV would have had an even greater career if he had ditched the “Oliver” and the Roman numeral. A name like that made people expect his butler to come on stage and tune the instrument for him.

      • V. Lind says:

        And then there is Harry S (or S.) Truman…

        And of course the immortal BJ Hunnicutt!

      • William Safford says:

        Funny you should mention Robert Q. Lewis. I know little about him, other than what I just read about him in Wikipedia.

        But it reminds me of my friend Robert Lewis (no relation to Robert Q. Lewis, AFAIK), friend of both Peter Schickele and Philip Glass, who appeared on several PDQ Bach albums, who was the inventor of the left-handed sewer flute as well as the balloonist in the Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle, Balloons, and String Orchestra.

        There was also a Robert A. Lewis (no relation to the abovementioned ones, AFAIK), who was the co-pilot of the “Enola Gay” B-29 Superfortress at the end of WWII.

        Initials and middle names have their use.

      • BruceB says:

        LOL. I never heard James Buswell’s full name before now — he was always just James Buswell whenever I saw his name in a program book.

        I wonder if the full name came from his days as a child prodigy, when a fancy name attached to a normal-looking kid could be used as an attention-getting gimmick.

  • I began to use my middle name consistently because years ago, funny stuff would happen on tour, like gigantic food/flower arrangements appearing in my hotel room, phone calls being misrouted, or my being assigned a room clearly meant for higher rollers than I. One day I spoke with John Williams in the hotel lobby and told him that I had just had a short conversation with Burt Bacharach. John smiled and said that earlier that day, he had had a very nice conversation with my mother.

  • Eric says:

    Pretty odd review given that only a year ago Slipped Disc named Become Ocean as best work of the 21st century!