It’s crazy time! Now this is the part where everyone—the first time you hear it, and it’s just kind of like everyone looks at you like ‘what? What were you thinking? What is [up with that?]” You know? Then ya gotta play it like eight times and then finally people are like “Oh! We still don’t like it but now we at least know what you’re thinking.”
--Michael Giacchino, composer of the score for “The Incredibles”
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Numbers, Numbers, Numbers....
Read any good books lately? Several? My suspicion is that none of them was called "Book number six in English." It probably had a more imaginative title, that, with any luck, gave you some idea what the book was supposed to be about.
But the chances are if you've heard anything by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Corigliano (he's still alive, which might explain we you didn't recognize him--if you did, congratulations) you encountered just such a generic title. "Symphony number 8 in F Major" at first glance doesn't seem to tell us a heck of a lot. It has all the style of reading a novel called "novel" or a short story called "short story."
And then they go and stick a bunch of numbers on the end that make it seem like you've wondered into the non-fiction section of your local library.
So what's that all about?
A title might tell us something about the book we are going to read, although it probably only gets us so far. The title of a song with lyrics is usually the first line of the chorus, which generally gets repeated a lot. But the title of a musical composition without words? Well, the book title and the pop song with lyrics are works which use the same language as their title. In other words, the title is in English and so are (some of) the contents. But a piece of pure music? What should we call that? The one that goes
You know, that one.
Ok, so how about telling us what the music is about? What it describes. A sunrise, an emotion, a legend. The problem here is that most instrumental music wasn't specifically written to describe anything. And there are some who think that music practically ceases to be music the moment it tries too hard to do those things.
So we're back to naming a piece based on its type. Is it a novel or a short story, a Symphony or a Prelude? You see, each genre has a tradition that has grown up around it and an accepted set of rules--customs, really--that tells the informed listener basically what to expect when he first encounters a piece with a particular title. A Symphony is generally a work for large orchestra in several parts (movements; usually 4) which, in the manner of an essay, presents a handful of musical ideas, and then develops them, concluding with a repeat of the opening ideas. It is the musical equivalent of a novel, generally lasting at least half-an-hour. A prelude, on the other hand, is a single piece (though composers usually write sets of preludes) in a single mood, usually for solo piano, and quite short, usually only 2 or 3 minutes.
While there are hundreds, thousands of individual pieces with the same titles, getting acquainted with what each title means simplifies things greatly. There are billions of human beings, but we've pretty much all got noses and fingers and other strange protuberances. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, but they mostly stick to the same large-scale plan, with a few variants (after listening to about 30 of them the variants become quite welcome, actually!)
It's too bad this system of generic titles and endless numbers represents such an obstacle to people trying to get to know this kind of music, but it does, and worse, it seems pretentious. Some of the best known titles in classical music have nicknames which helps to make the piece stand out or bring them down to earth, like the "Moonlight" Sonata or the "Surprise" Symphony. The composers themselves usually had nothing to do with the nicknames, but it does seem to make the pieces friendlier than if we referred to the pieces as Sonata number 14 or Symphony number 94.
So what is the deal with these numbers? Well, like a lot of things in music it what sounds complicated and unfriendly to the layman is actually ridiculously simple. The numbers are simply a way of cataloguing a composer's output, and they run, either in chronological order of composition, publication, or some other sequence, from 1 through whatever number it takes to identify precisely everything the composer wrote, or at least, got published. The numbering system, however, is a bit different in the case of the individual composer.
Many composer's works have the abbreviation op. after the title. Op. is short for opus, which means "work" and the opus number means the publication number. The first thing the composer ever got published is known as his opus 1 and the numbers keep going until he dies or retires.
Since, for example, there is only one opus 3 you can specifically refer to that one work, and one work only. If a composer wrote a lot of Symphonies, even a lot of Symphonies in the same key (like Symphony in D Major) there is still only one Symphony in D Major opus 3. There may also be a Symphony in D Major opus 4. Some composers, like Haydn, wrote a ridiculously large number of symphonies in D Major, so we need to be pretty specific.
It is possible that opus 3 might refer to a collection of pieces all published together, and that we will actually have to call it Symphony in D Major, opus 3 number 6, as in the sixth item published in that group. That sort of thing tends to happen more with pre-nineteenth century composers, who wrote quite a slew of pieces by present-day standards, as if they wanted to prove their facility with the quill pen. (One catch: symphonies were shorter and for fewer instruments, which is one reason Haydn wrote 104 symphonies and Beethoven only wrote 9!)
For composers from Beethoven (1770-1827) and later, this approach works pretty well. Opus numbers can tell us, not only which exact piece we are talking about, they can usually tell us whether the composer was just starting out or had a few grey hairs on him when the piece was written. But "opus" refers to the order of publication, not when the piece was written, so in a few cases, a composer may have written the piece, sat on it for a few years (for whatever reason) and then published it quite late. Like most systems, opus numbers can't tell us everything.
Before the publishing industry was on cruise control, a composer like Mozart would have published only a few of his works, so referring to them by opus number is not very helpful, particularly when most of his works don't have one! This is where fellows like Koechel come in. A mineralogist by profession, Koechel spent years tracking down what he felt was Mozart's exact order of composition. Koechel numbered Mozart's works from 1 to 626, and each work got its own number from the smallest minuet (K 1) Mozart wrote when he was four to the great Requiem Mass still incomplete when he died at the ripe old age of 35 (K 626). Referring to Mozart's compositions by Koechel number not only gives us the exact piece we have in mind, we can tell how old Mozart was when he wrote it, what other things he was working on at the time, the circumstances of his life at the time (which may give us a clue as to why he wrote it) and so on.
Or can we? There has been at least one major revision of the Koechel catalogue. Musicological research has leapt forward in the last century and new methods of determining when a piece was written have become available. Now these musical sleuths can trace what kind of manuscript paper Mozart was using at any given time to a particular city or even music store, sometimes merely by examining the watermarks on the paper. (Fictitious Example: aha! So he had to have written it DURING or AFTER his trip to Somewherespeziel in the fall of 1785 because we can tell by the watermark that the paper he was using came from Bob's Not-so-Viennese Music Emporium which closed in the spring of 1786 and we know Mozart was in the area in October of 1785 and MIGHT HAVE bought paper there for the opera which premiered in 1787. He made another trip to the city in the fall of 1786 but we've already established that the store was closed by then so he must have bought the paper in 1785 which completely debunks my colleague's assertion that the opera can be traced back to the spring of 1785 because he didn't have the manuscript paper on which it was written yet, so there!) It can get pretty involved.
Some researchers have thrown up their hands when it comes to ordering a composer's catalogue chronologically. Alfred Schmieder decided to arrange J. S. Bach's works by type, without worrying about when they were written. Thus all of the church cantatas are given numbers from 1 to 150. Most of the non-organ-related keyboard music is up in the eight or nine hundreds. Schmieder listings (S.) are more commonly known as B. W. V. numbers (Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or Edition of Bach's Works) .
A fellow named Otto Deutsch prepared a catalogue of the complete works of Franz Schubert. These Deutsch listings are also supposed to be in chronological order of composition. Schubert tended to write quickly and not make revisions. His listed composition come close to a thousand. Annoyingly, some publishers only use opus numbers after Schubert compositions, which does not give a very complete picture since Schubert only published a fraction of what he wrote. The Deutsch listings are much more comprehensive.
There are cases where more than one person has attempted a catalogue of the same composer's works, and while one usually gains standard usage (as Koechel's did with Mozart), sometimes you will see two sets of numbers after a piece's title. Such is the case with Domenico Scarlatti, whose sonatas were placed in some attempt at chronological order (though it is almost impossible to know for sure) by John Kirkpatrick, and thus also have the designation K. Before him, a man named Longo numbered the works and came to many different conclusions. For some reason, neither system has become universally accepted, which often leads to a nightmare of numbers and certainly doesn't make them appear more listener-friendly when listed by conscientious concert-programmers.
In case musicologists ever take these matters too seriously, the works of our dear P. D. Q. Bach, said to be the "last and least of the great J. S. Bach's twenty odd children" have also received catalogue numbers from their tireless promoter, Peter Schickele, who, besides presenting these outrageous works which lampoon classical music and the snob culture in general, also moonlights as a serious composer. Schickele poses as the man responsible for discovering and researching his way through the works of the incompetent and frequently drunk composer whom he profess to so admire, and has presented each of the works with its own Schickele number (which makes it bear a suspicious resemblance to the elder Bach's Schmeider numbers), many of which contain fractions and exponents just in case the public ever begins to think it has caught on to the confusing parade of numbers after a composer's works and they begin to lose their incomprehensible charm.