The difference between an opus and a symphony is quite substantial:
the latin word “opus” refers to a number which is conventionally assigned to a piece of music or to a set of musical compositions once they are published, while the term “symphony” denotes a specific form of orchestral composition divided into four movements.
An example of Opus
Let me give you now a concrete example of an opus and how this concept is generally applied by music publishers and musicologists to list a composer’s production in chronological order.
I’m going to choose Beethoven’s musical compositions since they are currently classified following the opus numbers.
According to the Boston University Centre for Beethoven Research, the German composer has published 138 works, which means that his pieces of music have been catalogued using a sequence of opus numbers going from 1 to 138.
For instance, the immortal 9th Symphony in D minor is classified as opus n°125, while the 5th Symphony in C minor corresponds to the opus numbered 67.
Beethoven’s fifth symphony was composed between 1804 and 1808, while the ninth symphony dates back to a period comprised between 1822 and 1824.
In other words, the lower is the opus number and the earlier is the work.
A note of warning is necessary though:
Therefore, musicologists have decided to organize and enumerate their compositions by genre and not into a chronological order.
In addition, there are occasions when the composer himself or his publisher deliberately decide to assign a higher or lower opus number to a given composition, going against every kind of time logic.
Beethoven’s Piano Trio-s, which are considered to be his opus n°1, are not the first work of art written by the German composer.
He wanted this collection of trio-s to be published first so as to reinforce his public image of pianist.
An example of Symphony
Once we have clarified the concept of opus in classical music we can take into account one of the most famous and difficult genres ever created by Western composers: the symphony.
A symphony is a piece of music designed to be played by a large orchestra and consists of four separate episodes, called movements, which are artistically and philosophically linked one to the other.
For example, Beethoven’s 1st Symphony in C major, published in 1801 as opus n°21, presents the classical division into four sections, each of which is called after the tempo indication provided by the composer:
1. Adagio molto – allegro con brio
2. Andante cantabile con moto
3. Minuetto: allegro molto e vivace
4. Adagio – allegro molto e vivace
As you may have noticed, this composition is know as Beethoven’s first symphony, which means that it was the first out of a series of symphonies (nine to be precise) to be published by the German composer in his career.
Instead, the opus number 21 indicates that this symphony was the 21th musical compositions that Beethoven officially released.
Before concluding this short article on the difference between an opus and a symphony, let me invite you to listen to this wonderful performance of Beethoven’s 1st symphony directed by the sublime Leonard Bernstein: