Decoding Classical Music
For generations of
classical music lovers, a “K”-numbered work has come to mean Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart, but where did that “K” come from? It stands for educator and scientist
Ludwig Kchel (1800-77), who took up residence in Salzburg, Austria
(where Mozart had been born a century before). Here he made mineralogy indexes,
categorized botanical specimens and discovered that Mozart’s works were in a
state of chaos: The scores were undated and unnumbered, amounting to an
undifferentiated mass of symphonies, operas, concertos, sonatas and so forth.
How, Kchel wondered, could Mozart’s works be properly studied by posterity in
They could not. Thus he
undertook a heroic task: putting this repository of musical masterpieces in
order, doing so by retracing Mozart’s steps throughout Europe
and becoming an expert on Mozart’s handwriting by following the paper trail of
correspondence he left behind. In 1862, Kchel produced a list of 626 works,
from a minuet Mozart composed when he was 5 years old (K. 1) to the great
Requiem mass he left unfinished when he died (K. 626). Kchel continued his
work for the remainder of his life, collaborating with Johannes Brahms and
others in eventually publishing a complete edition of Mozart’s works.
Ironically, unlike Mozart’s infamously bleak passing, Kchel’s funeral was
attended by royalty, accompanied by the music of K. 626.
In particular the
earlier composers (17th-18th centuries) left many compositions to be
authenticated, numbered and dated. The task was surely cut out for scholars who
staked a claim to one or another composer whose works lay all over the European
Otto Deutsch (1883-1967) worked on the sequence of Franz Schubert’s
compositions (known by their “D” numbers), many of which were originally
published out of order or never published at all. Anthony van Hoboken
(1887-1983) was the Dutch musicologist who selected Joseph Haydn for his
province (thus the “Hob” numbers). Alessandro Longo (1864-1945) was the Italian
composer who created a near-comprehensive catalog of Domenico Scarlatti’s vast
array of sonatas. But Massachusetts-born Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911-84) has given
us the now-standard, authoritative Scarlatti numbering system (seen as “K” or,
so as not to be confused with Kchel, “Kk”).
Ludwig van Beethoven and
his successors normally published their works as they composed them (attaching
an “opus number” to each), and in so doing posed few problems for the
catalogers. Thus when Beethoven labeled his “Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major (Eroica),
Op. 55,” we not only have the work’s genre (a symphony), its place among such
works (third), its name (“Eroica” means “Heroic”) and its home key (E-flat
major), but also its position in his total official output (his 55th).
Classical music is full of numbers and letters, which can be somewhat off-putting to the uninitiated. But the labors of Kchel, Kirkpatrick, Deutsch, Hoboken and others have actually made coming to grips with the classics far easier for everyone. They were quite often obsessed by the onerous tasks they took upon them, and for this we are eternally indebted to them.