Opus 1: Great Composers' First Works


You have to start somewhere, and for young composers launching their careers, getting that initial published work is a major milestone – and, you can bet, one that had received serious attention, since you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Most of those Opus 1's (the term used by music publishers) followed years of preparatory attempts, usually ending in frustration and crumpled music pages. In this Active Minds program, we'll hear debut works by Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini, Schumann, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Schubert. Great beginnings – and some disasters, too!


Being a composer was a profession, not necessarily a calling. In centuries past, just as in our modern world, writing music was hard work, carrying huge risks. For those drawn to it, the field is filled with uncertainty, mainly because so many talented composers and song-writers are vying for attention. The goal was to be heard, and that meant getting published – which is where things get dicey. Then, as now, music publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts every day, just as companies that publish books must wade through piles of literary efforts by unknowns. How, and when, to seek recognition can be a complicated question. Consider the young Beethoven. Raised in Bonn, Germany, trained as a gifted pianist with a desire to compose, he sought to make a splash in Vienna, Austria – a city over-run with musicians and composers. He'd already written dozens of pieces, keeping them in their original sketched-out, hand-written form without any thought of letting others hear them. Settling in Vienna in 1792 (arriving only months after Mozart had died), he knew this was Haydn's town. Befriending some top-flight musicians, he was introduced to wealthy patrons, who would commission new works and offer a word of encouragement and a bag of coins. It would be three years before Beethoven brought three piano trios to one of Vienna's publishers and allowed them to be printed and sold as Opus 1. Haydn was present when they were first played in a private home, offering praise and a few words of criticism. It was an unforgettable moment of the 25-year-old composer, who knew he was on his way. This saga helps one understand the significance of entering the world of published music. Building a close and trusting relationship with a publisher is crucial. Often, it's a rocky road. Some publishers took it among themselves to juggle the notion of an Opus 1 – along with works using similarly small numbers. As composers' fame grew, early works, previously hidden, were resurrected and assigned higher, false Opus numbers, hoping to full the public by suggesting they were written in recent days. Similarly, some composers asked that a published work designated Opus 1 lose that label, since the juvenile piece was now thought of as inferior. French composer Berlioz ordered such a change and his publisher complied. For some composers, getting published was unimportant – Bach wasn't interested, until late in life when he wrote the instructional “Art of the Fugue.” His hundreds of earlier works remained unpublished, and undated, the manuscripts languishing for years in church attics and libraries. For us, it's always fascinating to discover first works or early attempts by composers before they gained celebrity, such as Mozart's charming pieces, penned before he turned 10, Schumann's Opus 1, a piano piece dedicated to an imaginary young woman (though we know he was secretly smitten with the teenage Clara Wieck). Whether it's music or poetry or an ambitious novel, getting a publisher to put that first offering in print is a major milestone for any author. Works that follow may one day capture the public's imagination and make serious money for the now-famous writer or composer – but nothing can match the thrill of gazing with joy at that debut work.  A journey of a thousand miles, as they say....

Exploration Questions

  • Who were some of the most important music publishers in the 19th Century, and which composers were they famously connected with?
  • When was the demanding technique of publishing music, rather than written text, developed?
  • Why do some composers have separate music catalogs that list works by a different numbering system, such as “Opus” and “D” in Schubert's case?

Reflective Questions

  • If you had written something you wanted printed, how would you find the right publisher?
  • When you listen to various Opus 1 compositions, do you hear music of potential greatness each time? Do you hear those early works differently that later ones?

More to Explore

  • Essay on importance of Opus 1 compositions Click here
  • Ten Opus 1 Compositions of Great Composers Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Nicholas, Jeremy. The Great Composers: The Lives of the 50 Greatest Classical Composers. Quercus Publishers. 2007. 208 pages. A thorough and thoroughly enjoyable read, giving ample room to the great composers, with recommendations of their finest works.
    Click here to order
  • Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. W.W. Norton. 1997. 656 pages. For years, this has served as the premier source of biographical information on the greatest music-makers. Hundreds of composers are treated to finely detailed, lovingly written chapters.
    Click here to order