A composer’s Op. 1 is a debut, a public message, the start of a career. Almost never is it a composer’s first work, rather it is the first mature piece as decided by the composer, public, publisher, or all three. Unlike other types of catalogue numbers (Kochel for Mozart, BWV for Bach, Hoboken for Haydn, etc.), opus numbers were assigned during composers’ lifetimes, not after their deaths, and the numbers generally indicate that the works were published. Opus numbers were often inconsistent, with the same set of works assigned different numbers by different publishers in different cities. And while they are generally numbered in order of composition, most composers have chronological outliers. Still, despite all the inconsistencies involved with opus numbers, a composer’s first numbered work sends a message about their career, plans, and ambitions.
The word ‘opus’ and opus numbers themselves have meant different things over time. The word opus (meaning ‘work’ in Latin) was first used in music by Renaissance composer and theorist Tinctoris (c. 1430-1511) and later started appearing in titles of large compilations by multiple composers (‘magnum opus’). Around 1600 publishers began adding numbers to sets of works by one composer. In the Baroque and early Classical periods, one opus was often a set of 12 works and as time went on that number decreased until a different opus number accompanied each individual work.
Many composers have made chamber music their Op. 1, particularly in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. (An equally popular choice was solo piano music, which began the published careers of Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Berg, and Bartók, among many others.) Beethoven chose works of chamber music that included his instrument, the piano, and his three piano trios, Op. 1, are some of the most famous compositions of that opus number by any composer. CMS is presenting Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 1 on March 29 and below we look at his and other composers’ first numbered works.
Haydn, in an unusual move, assigned his Op. 1 after the fact. His first known quartets were composed around 1757 when the composer was about 25 but they didn’t receive the Op. 1 title until over 40 years later, when Ignaz Pleyel issued an edition of Haydn’s complete quartets. By that time Haydn was known as the father of the string quartet and this later reputation fueled interest in his earlier quartets. His Op. 1, No.1, “The Hunt” is in five movements reminiscent of a Baroque suite.
Beethoven planned his Op. 1 as part of his debut in Vienna. He moved there in 1792, took the city by storm with his virtuosic piano playing, and three years later published his Op. 1 piano trios to cement his growing reputation. The set of trios wasn’t his first publication—that was a set of piano variations issued when he was 12—but the Op. 1 designation was an important milestone and he saved that for more substantial, mature compositions. Here’s the third and final trio in the set.
Schubert composed his dark, dramatic song “Erlkönig” in 1815 when he was 18 but it wasn’t until five years later that the song was performed publicly and began to receive wider recognition. It was published in 1821 and became his most popular composition in his lifetime. It was so well-known that Schubert was sometimes identified as the “composer of Erlkönig” on his later works, even though he wrote over 500 other songs. Schubert is recognized as the inventor of the German Romantic art song.
Mendelssohn, a child prodigy, composed his Op. 1 Piano Quartet in 1822 at the age of 13 and it was published the following year. By that time he’d already written six juvenile symphonies for strings, plus numerous works for piano solo and chamber ensemble, but he chose this work as his Op. 1. He wrote the virtuosic piano part to play himself at the musical gatherings his family hosted in their home.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, it became more common for orchestral works to be a composer’s Op. 1 (for instance, Webern, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Shostakovich all started with pieces for orchestra) though chamber music and piano solos still remained popular choices. Today most compositions are published without opus numbers but they do make an appearance occasionally. The tradition of numbering pieces has mostly come to an end but they were a powerful tool to mark the ambitions of an aspiring composer in past eras.
Hear Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 1 on Sunday, March 29, 5:00 PM at Alice Tully Hall.
Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager.