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On The First Day Of The New Year, Celebrating Composers' Opus One

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 1, 2018 5:56 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin with some historic music firsts on this first day of the new year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATOS TRIO'S PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO TRIO IN E FLAT MAJOR, OP. 1, NO. 1")

MARTIN: That's the trio for piano, violin and cello, "Op. 1 No. 1." It was the first published work by a young composer named Beethoven. Here to help us celebrate some other important musical beginnings is classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Happy New Year, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Thank you very much. Happy New Year to you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So just to be clear, Miles, even though it is hard to imagine anything coming before an "Op. 1, No. 1," that Beethoven trio we just heard was actually not the first piece that Beethoven composed, right?

HOFFMAN: That's right. He had written other pieces. But that trio is the first of his pieces he ever considered worthy of being published. Opus is just the Latin word for work. And opus numbers are meant to indicate the chronological order of musical pieces, although sometimes they indicate the order of publication rather than the exact order of composition. Sometimes it's actually scholars who make chronological catalogs long after the composers have died. And many composers just give their works titles or names, no numbers of any kind.

MARTIN: So who gave Beethoven his opus numbers?

HOFFMAN: Beethoven - Beethoven himself - and he was a pioneer in this respect because he was the first major composer to assign opus numbers to his own works. The trio we just heard, for example, was one of a set of trios that Beethoven had published together as his op. 1. He was an old man of 25 at the time this was published. And we can hear that he was already a brilliant and mature composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATOS TRIO'S PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO TRIO IN E FLAT MAJOR, OP. 1, NO. 1")

MARTIN: Twenty-five - that's crazy.

HOFFMAN: Well, there are composers who rolled out their op. 1's much, much earlier than that. And actually, the first one who comes to mind is the greatest child prodigy composer of them all. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "PIANO QUARTET IN C MINOR, OP. 1")

HOFFMAN: That was the op. 1 of Felix Mendelssohn, a piano quartet - a quartet for piano and strings. And Mendelssohn composed it when he was 13 years old.

MARTIN: He was 13 when he wrote that?

HOFFMAN: 13 years old - he wrote it. And he could have played it, too. He was a great pianist. And he probably could have played the violin part as well. And there again, Rachel, it wasn't the first piece that Mendelssohn composed. He'd been writing string symphonies since the ripe old age of 12. But I've got another op. 1 by a 13-year-old for you, Rachel. This is by another great compositional prodigy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF KORNGOLD'S "PIANO TRIO IN C MINOR, OP. 1")

MARTIN: Wow.

HOFFMAN: Different style, huh?

MARTIN: It is different. But this whole segment is just making people feel bad about where they were at in their lives when they were 13.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Yeah. That's from the "Piano Trio," also C minor - "Op. 1" - composed at the age of 13 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold - considered the Mozart of Vienna in his day. He was born in Vienna. And by the age of 10, he'd already been proclaimed a genius by Mahler.

MARTIN: Come on.

HOFFMAN: Gustav Mahler - yeah, yeah. And he'd already had a big success. He'd written a ballet when he was 11. He was just amazing.

MARTIN: Wow. So Korngold, too, like Beethoven and Mendelssohn - he wrote other pieces before his op. 1, right?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah. He had gotten an early start. But that piano trio was his first published composition - "Op. 1." Very often, op. 1 marks the beginning of a career, really, rather than the first attempts at writing music.

And Korngold's career actually is particularly fascinating because in the '30s - in the 1930s, he came to America. And he became one of the greatest of all Hollywood film composers. Yeah, he won a couple of Oscars. He won an Oscar for the score to "Anthony Adverse," which I confess I've never seen - and "The Adventures Of Robin Hood." And altogether, he wrote music for 16 different films. He was the first major European composer - world famous composer to write for Hollywood.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite op. 1, Miles, especially in the category of someone who's maybe older than 13?

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) OK. How about 18?

MARTIN: Eighteen - sure, yeah.

HOFFMAN: Eighteen - we're getting up there. The op. 1 of the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi is a quintet for piano and strings that Dohnanyi wrote in 1895 when he was 18 years old. I've played this piece a number of times. And I'm madly and completely in love with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF VON DOHNANYI'S "PIANO QUINTET IN C MINOR, OP. 1, NO. 1")

HOFFMAN: Isn't that beautiful? That's a portion of the "Piano Quintet In C Minor." We've got a lot of C minor today - "Op. 1" by Ernst von Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi was Hungarian, Rachel. And as a young man in Budapest starting in the 1990s, he made a tremendous reputation as both a composer and a virtuoso pianist. Apparently, he was an astonishing pianist. And his grandson by the way, Christoph von Dohnanyi, was the longtime conductor and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra - so followed in grandpa's footsteps.

MARTIN: Well, I can think of no better way to ring in the new year than with a conversation about musical beginnings. Miles, thank you so much for bringing us all these pieces.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman, besides being our musical commentator, is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion: An Essential Guide For Enlightened Listening." Give us one more musical first to go out on here.

HOFFMAN: Well, let's stick with the Dohnanyi, Rachel. I love that piece so much. And this is another section from the piece. And you'll hear why it's just such a great work of art.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF VON DOHNANYI'S "PIANO QUINTET IN C MINOR, OP. 1, NO. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.