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?