Nice Work If You Can Get It

Nice Work If You Can Get It

We’ve already debated inspiration, form, titles, movements, bios, dates of birth, and seemingly just about everything else, but there’s one thing that seems to have escaped our tirades thus far: opus numbers. You know, those mysterious numerological signifiers that are next to the titles of almost every piece of standard repertoire. Ostensibly, they serve as a way of connoting the order in which a specific composer’s work had been published, separating out the publisher-endorsed masterpieces from the obscure WoO stuff (the dreaded Werke ohne Opuszahle, works without opus numbers). But, in a world where most composers are self-published, wouldn’t the use of opus numbers today seem like the ultimate act of hubris?

The other day, my friend Steven Swartz asked me rhetorically if I could think of any well-known composer active now, and specifically any composer with experimental inclinations, who affixed opus numbers to his or her compositions. Other than Karlheinz Stockhausen, who obsessively attaches numbers to his works (to the point of using fractions for his juvenia), I came up empty handed. But even Stockhausen uses the less imposing abbreviation “Nr.” (for the German word for number, Nummer) rather than the formerly de rigeur “op.” However, once I thought harder about it, I was able to come up with a few composers among our ranks who are still using them, e.g. Dennis Busch, whose work list boasts nearly 400 opuses. But, in his case, this seeming anachronism is fully in keeping with the overall intentional anachronism of his compositions. Busch, readers of these pages may recall, writes music that shares stylistical affinities with middle-period Haydn and is a rather uncanny simulacrum of 18th-century aesthetics.

Then there’s Alan Hovhaness, who, although no longer with us, composed music with opus numbers straight up until his death only a few years ago. If he was still using opus numbers, they can’t have completely gone away, right? Well, turns out that his use of opus numbers began as a requirement for getting programmed on an orchestral concert with the good old boys conducted by none other than Leopold Stokowski. According to a fascinating and sometimes hilarious interview with Charles Amirhanian recorded at the Cabrillo Festival in 1981 and reprinted here, Hovhaness recounts that:

Stokowski…called me up many times and talked to me about various things he wanted me to write and he said, “Does it have an opus number? People like opus numbers. You know how dumb they are.” So I said, “No, it doesn’t have an opus number. I haven’t catalogued my work.” “Well how would 132″—or something like that, I think—”how would that be, do you think that gives you enough room for the things you’ve written?” And I said, “Sure, that’s okay. I’ll start making a catalogue.

But the whole opus number thing is emblematic of a larger issue: Does knowing where a work falls chronologically in someone’s overall output affect the way we listen to it? Might we be more forgiving of the compositional foibles in someone’s opus 5 than we would be in are in soneone’s opus 114? Do opus numbers signify other things as well? Might we feel suspicious of someone with an opus 648 or intimidated by their productivity? Should we all start using them again?

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10 thoughts on “Nice Work If You Can Get It

  1. DJA

    “People like opus numbers.”


    This exchange reminds me of “The Sinatra Group” on SNL:

    Frank Sinatra: Easy, baby! And what’s with the sneering crap? [ Billy sneers ] Don’t do that to the people, they want to like you! That’s what killed Dennis Day – contempt for the audience.

  2. JKG

    Opus numbers…
    Others may do as they wish; I find them completely obsolete – yes, the ultimate act of hubris.

  3. david toub

    I never thought of opus numbers as being particularly suggestive of hubris, but ditched them after my student days (when I guess such things were “cool” or “in vogue”). Part of the value of opus numbers is that they give a listener some sense of where the work falls in the composer’s chronology. If I hear a work by Ginastera that has an opus number greater than that of his first piano concerto, I have some sense of what I’m going to be listening to. Of course, just appending the year to the title serves the same function, which is often done by others for composers like Feldman.

    So I think opus numbers, or preferably the year of the composition in parentheses (like “Piano (1977)”) can be helpful. I’m not sure how it qualifies as “hubris” per se any more than the use of Italian or French tempo markings are these days by composers who are no more Italian or French than Don Rumsfeld. Now that’s an affectation! 8-)

  4. Colin Holter

    When did living composers start attaching opus numbers to their pieces (as opposed to posthumous cataloguing)? I thought opus numbers were generally assigned by musicologists after a composer’s death.

    My gut impression is that it would be a little pretentious to give one’s own pieces opus numbers, but it’s a comparatively harmless affectation, like naming your body parts or something.

  5. axlroth

    György Kurtág has been using opus numbers throughout his entire career. Adès took lessons from Kurtág, and perhaps picked up from him the idea of an opus revival. Ligeti applied the opus number 69 to his Grande Symphonie Militaire of 1951, but later revealed that the number referred to the sexual position. None of these composers qualifies, I suppose, as “experimental.”

  6. axlroth

    György Kurtág has been using opus numbers throughout his career. Adès took lessons from Kurtág, and perhaps picked up from him the idea of an opus revival. Ligeti applied the opus number 69 to his Grande Symphonie Militaire of 1951, but later revealed that the number referred to the sexual position. None of these composers qualifies, I suppose, as “experimental.”

  7. frindley

    Catalogue numbers (K, D, B, Kk, BWV, you name it) are typically assigned by musicologists after a composer’s death.

    But Opus numbers (as Frank’s original piece observes) were traditionally assigned by publishers or by composers submitting to publishers – during the composer’s lifetime. (Thus “Opus posthumous” for such numbers assigned after death.)

    Opus numbers? not obsolete and not hubris.

    Unless its Dvorak that we’re talking about, then they convey something useful: the relative place of the work in the composer’s output. That’s something that a simple year of composition doesn’t do (unless you already know a fair bit about the composer’s work).

    So to the extent that living composers may want to help listeners come to terms with their work, an opus number can’t do any harm.

    Certainly assigning opus numbers shouldn’t be regarded as an arrogant or presumptuous gesture, more an innocuous sign of an organised mind.

    Do we think Mozart was arrogant because he began jotting down his own thematic catalogue in the 1780s? Of course not. He was just trying to keep track of his ever-growing output. And God knows modern musicologists are thankful enough now that he did.

  8. jaquick

    If anyone cares after I’m dead…
    …they can catalog me then. I got my BM in musicology, and I figure that I could be part of a full-employment plan for grad students. “Thematic catalog of the works of Jeffrey Quick” (by QWV numbers, no doubt) has a nice ring to it. As for opus numbers: where do I begin, and what do I exclude? My bud David Babcock uses them, but even he has a few numbers he probably wishes would “just go away”. I don’t see it as pretentious, just as something I can’t be bothered with.


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