What is an Opus?

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This is Robert Estrin from LivingPianos.com with a really interesting question for you: What is an opus? You probably have heard this when you go to concerts and see, for example, a piano Sonata no. 7, opus 10 no. 3 by Beethoven. You may have wondered what this means. You have the number of the piece, the key of the piece, what does opus mean?

Opus numbers started way back in the time of Handel in the 1700s. It is a way of organizing music so generally, lower opus numbers are earlier works, and higher opus numbers are later works. However, it is not quite so simple. If you have sonatas numbered, that already tells you when they were written. Why would you still need opus numbers? Chopin wrote a whole book of mazurkas and an entire book of waltzes. Many of them are in the same key and to be able to identify them, opus numbers can be very handy.

Let’s say Beethoven had three sonatas he wanted to publish. He would go to his publisher with the works. If the last works he published were, “opus 9”, these new compositions would be cataloged as, “opus 10”. If he presents three piano sonatas opus 10, they will be designated as opus 10 no. 1, opus 10 no. 2, and opus 10 no 3. That is a whole body of work. Next time he composes music it will be cataloged as opus 11. It could be piano pieces, string quartets, or a symphony. It depends on what is in that opus. It could be one work or a group of works.

Each opus represents a group of works published together

Here is where it gets a little tricky. Sometimes opuses are out of order. For example, the Opus 49 Sonatas of Beethoven come to mind. He wrote two sonatas that were published pretty late, Opus 49, yet they were written much earlier. While these pieces were composed earlier in his life, he didn’t publish them until later on.

You can’t always go by opus numbers in regards to the date that something was written.

However, they provide a way to clarify what works you are referring to. That is the whole purpose of opus numbers. Why do I bring this all up? It is a little personal story. Years ago, I composed a piece that was a mammoth work for synthesizers, digital pianos, and a whole host of other technologies. I called it “Opus 1” because I thought it was a cool name. I just did an improvisation in my living room after visiting my daughter in Portland, Oregon. I hadn’t touched the piano in a few days and I just came in, hit record, and sat down. I’m calling it “Opus 2” for you.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tutorial on what “opus” means. If you have any questions I’m always here for you: robert@livingpianos.com I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for joining me again. This is Robert Estrin from LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store.