The first published works of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler: mere trifles or immortal masterpieces?
Piano Concerto No 1 in F#, Op 1 (1890–91)
Rachmaninov was not 18, and still a student at the Moscow Imperial Conservatorium, when he began work on his First Piano Concerto. The fledgling composer completed his Opus 1 during a month of almost complete solitude at his family’s holiday house in Ivanovka, where the second and third movements emerged in a two-and-a-half day burst as he worked from 5am to 8pm each day.
Rachmaninov himself played the first movement at a student concert on March 17, 1892. Though an early work, not as famous as his bombastic Second Piano Concerto, it bears all the hallmarks of Rachmaninov’s mature style, swooning themes and pianistic flourishes aplenty. Still, he revised it in 1917.
Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)
24 Caprices Op 1 (1819)
Paganini’s Caprices is not only one of the most breathtaking Opus 1s ever published and a very impressive calling card for its composer, but it’s one of the only Opus 1s to revolutionise the instrument for which it was written, becoming a bible of extended techniques.
The Italian violinist-composer’s playing was so staggering, his stage presence so fiery, that it was commonly held that he was in league with the devil. But the virtuoso wasn’t happy playing the music of other composers who failed to draw sparks from his bow; he took his hand to writing Caprices as early as 1802, as a way to demonstrate and explore his own pyrotechnic technique. He was humble enough, however, to dedicate the set “to the artists” (A gli Artisti), even though most other violinists of the time deemed the Caprices completely unplayable. Although penned as a collection of technical exercises and not originally intended for public performance, it’s hard to imagine the solo violin repertory without them.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Erlkönig – The Earl King Op 1 (1816)
In 1815, at 18 years of age, Schubert embarked on an annus mirabilis of compositional activity, an incredible outpouring of almost 150 songs (an average of more than one every three days), perhaps unmatched in Western music.
Towards the end of 1816 year he turned again to Goethe, one of his favourite and most frequently set poets, for Erlkönig (D328), one of his most chilling and vivid lieder. With the galloping left-hand triplet figure that creates unrest and the urgency in the baritone melody, Schubert brings to life the tale of a father riding through the woods on horseback with his feverish son and the spectre of Death that lures the young boy away. The young composer revised the song three times before finally publishing the fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Sonata No 1, Op 1 (1853)
As a young man of 20, Johannes Brahms had the support and encouragement of one of the most influential couples in Romantic music: Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, a pianist and composer in her own right. The Schumanns were full of praise for their protégé’s astonishing talents: Robert opined that Brahms had “sprung like Minerva fully armed from the head of the son of Cronus”. Their “young eagle” showed them piano pieces including the Scherzo Op 4 and the andantes from what became the Sonata Op 5, and his Piano Sonata No 1, written in Hamburg in 1853 (the year this photograph of Brahms was taken).
The manuscript was sent to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, along with Brahms’s Piano Sonata No 2 and a recommendation from Schumann. Although he actually composed his Second Piano Sonata first, this is the work with which he chose to make his first mark on the world.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Sonata in C for Keyboard and Violin K6, Op 1 (c1763)
Mozart comes in as the youngest published composer on our list. His Opus 1 consists of two sonatas for violin and keyboard written by the child prodigy between the ages of six and eight, 1762–64; it’s not clear whether Mozart was living in Salzburg or Paris when they were composed. In many ways these were striking early efforts from music’s most famous wunderkind: they are his first works incorporating violin following a handful of short pieces for solo harpsichord (Wolfgang played both); they are his first for more than one instrument, the first multi-movement works and the first to use sonata form.
His domineering father and teacher, Leopold Mozart, probably had a hand in these youthful compositions; sections of the four-movement Sonata in C, K6, are found in Leopold’s handwriting in the Notenbuch für Nannerl, a collection of pieces for Wolfgang’s older sister, a gifted harpsichordist. K6 shows promise in Mozart’s use of imitation between the keyboard and violin, his grasp of Alberti bass and the charm of the third movement’s paired menuets.
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Das Klagende Lied, Op 1 (1878–1880)
The cantata Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lamentation) was completed when Mahler was 20, and remains one of the Austrian composer’s most underrated early works. The narrative piece was originally in three parts, but he excised the first section in the revised version in which the work had its premiere, conducted by Mahler in 1901.
In the young composer’s own verse text, the orchestral song recounts a fable of two brothers on quest for the flower that will win the hand of a “proud queen”. In 1883 Mahler submitted it to Liszt for consideration to be performed at the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein festival, but the older composer rejected it.
It’s certainly an ambitious Opus 1 of typical Mahlerian proportions, deploying a large orchestra, chorus, two boy singers (in the earlier version) and four adult soloists. And, appropriately enough for Mahler, the great tragedy of the drama is treated evocatively using these forces. The boy who retrieves the flower is murdered by his brother; one of the dead youth’s bones is discovered by a minstrel, who carves it into a flute. When the musician, by freakish coincidence, plays the flute at the queen’s wedding, it sings a lament in the voice of the murdered brother. Mahler exploited the melodramatic and operatic potential of this heartwrenching scene in a passage that features his first experimental use of offstage music – a wind band with percussion.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Six Partitas (1726)
It’s hard to think of a more unlikely Opus 1 than the six sets of partitas: they were, after all, Bach’s mature statement and final word on the keyboard suite, surpassing his own English and French suites in originality and invention.
It was during his earliest years in Leipzig as Cantor of the Thomas-Schule that Bach began the ambitious odyssey of his four volumes of harpsichord and organ music, the Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice”). The tome was designed to demonstrate his mastery across several genres of keyboard music, starting with the courtly Baroque dance suite – publishing, at his own expense, the six Partitas individually from 1726 onwards, and all together in 1731. He called them:
Consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets and other Galanteries
Composed for Music-Lovers for the refreshment of their Spirits
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Abegg Variations Op 1 (1829–1830)
What’s in a name? An air of mystery surrounds Schumann’sVariations on the name “Abegg” – it has been suggested that a 20-year-old Schumann fell in love with a young countess named Pauline von Abegg, to whom he dedicated the work; others believe the name refers to a fictitious friend Schumann called Meta Abegg (the name Meta being an anagram for “tema”, Latin for “theme”). In any case, the first five notes of the charming melody are A, B-flat, E, G and G, spelling out the name in a musical cryptogram.
Alban Berg (1885–1935)
Piano Sonata Op 1 (1909)
Berg completed his Opus 1 under the watchful eye of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who felt the younger composer was initially “incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.” Berg drafted five piano sonatas in an attempt to prove the older man wrong, but completed none of them. In the end it was the Sonata No 1 that stuck.
Berg originally intended it as a traditional multi-movement work, but struggled to flesh it out. At last, Schoenberg told him simply, “[Berg]…had said all there was to say,” effectively giving his blessing. It was published as a single-movement work in sonata form, and bears many of the hallmarks of Berg’s mature style, including dense chromaticisms and unstable, wandering tonal centres. It was the only piano work Berg gave an opus number.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Trios in E-Flat Major, G Major and C Minor, Op 1 (1795)
Beethoven was determined to create a stir in the world with his Opus 1, revising the three piano trios extensively before publication. He began work on No 1 during his time in Bonn, before 1792, when he left his hometown to study with Haydn in Vienna. It was no accident that he chose the form of piano trio with which to announce himself to the wider musical world. Unlike the string quartet and the symphony, the combination of piano, violin and cello was not a main focus in the outputs of Mozart and Haydn – so not too much competition there – and it was a popular grouping for amateur musicians, increasing the potential for robust sales on publication. In performance, it gave the impetuous pianist a star role on his own instrument.
Happily, Beethoven’s Opus 1 proved popular with both connoisseurs and amateur musicians – “Kenner und Liebhaner” – and netted the composer a handsome profit. But, more importantly, they extended the conventions of the piano trio: each of Beethoven’s three early trios is expanded beyond the normal two or three sections to a sprawling four movements and employs dense harmonic language.
As for Haydn: although the older composer had some quibbles with the third trio, he praised Beethoven’s originality and intensity (“You give me the impression of a man with more than one head, more than one heart and more than one soul!”).