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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Keys and Labels

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

For fifteen years (2003-2017) I wrote and presented a music education program on ABC Radio called Keys To Music. It was far and away the most enjoyable and productive period of my professional life. From the very start, I used one piece as a recurring theme, and it’s the title of this piece which is the springboard for this article. My theme was the Sinfonia in D major from JS Bach’s Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV29. [listen]

Hausmann: Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

Yes, we know music of all types is miraculous and we all have our favourite music, but what does that theme music title mean? And, more importantly, do we need to know all that stuff in order to appreciate the music?

What I want to do is address two aspects of music labelling that I believe get in the way of the average music lover’s appreciation of music. So many of us use these labels, and usually for good reason, but those who may not have the background of a comprehensive music education are often lost in the jargon many of us in the business take for granted. I want to try and deal with some of this.

The two things we’ll explore are keys and catalogues. Keys are references to music being “in D major” or “in F minor” or the like. The catalogues are those things we append to a lot of music, like K545, or BWV1042.

Let’s start with the title of that theme music. If stuff like that gets up your nose then you’re not alone. I mean, in what other art form can we give the title of something and use three languages? This is how I described the theme music:

Sinfonia in D major from JS Bach’s Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott BWV29

There are two Italian words in that - sinfonia and cantata. A sinfonia (in Italian the third syllable is stressed, but English speakers usually stress the second) is just an instrumental movement. In other contexts we’d call it an overture, and it’s the word that in English became “symphony”. A cantata is just a piece of music that involves singing, the implication being that this movement is the instrumental introduction, or overture, to a larger work which will, later on, include singing.

Then there’s German. The title of the cantata - Wir danken dir, Gott - is simply the first line that is sung in this piece. Straight after the sinfonia in this cantata there is a chorus movement and “Wir danken dir, Gott” is the first line of that chorus. It means “We praise you, oh God”. In addition to the title, though, there’s more German, but it’s hidden in those letters BWV. These are initials and they refer to a system universally used these days to catalogue all of Bach’s music. I’m going to come to that later.

The rest of the way I described that piece is, believe it or not, in English, and I started with a reference to this Sinfonia being in D major. This is the work’s key. But what is “key”?

This is very difficult to explain without recourse to the piano, but in the simplest terms, it means the pitch level in which a piece is cast. Imagine you’re asked to sing a song but someone starts it too high. You might then decide to start on a lower to note to make it more comfortable to sing. In musical terms, this would be described as putting the song into a lower key because the starting key was too high.

“Major” and “minor” refer to different types scales, which are said to be in different keys. The simplest way to differentiate major and minor is that major keys are happy and minor keys are sad, but this is not by any means a watertight means of recognition. Suffice to say for the purposes of this article that saying a key is major or minor is just another technical description of the piece’s pitch level.

Before continuing, I would stress that the average listener is not supposed to be able to identify a piece’s key just by listening to it. I’ve had people tell me that they must be missing out on something if the title says (for example) “in D major” but they can’t relate this information to what they’re hearing. In other words, they can hear a piano sonata is using a piano, but what are they supposed to be hearing if it’s “in D major”? The honest answer is, for most people, the concept of key is completely unnecessary when it comes to enjoying a piece of music.

The concept of key is integral to the writing of western classical music, though, and also to its performance. In music for voice and piano, for example, it’s regarded as quite acceptable to transpose music into keys other than those originally written by the composer if the original is uncomfortably high or low for the singer. Lieder (so-called “art songs” such as those written by Schubert) are often published in a range of keys for high, medium and low voice. Sopranos and tenors would tend to use the high settings, mezzo sopranos and baritones the medium settings, and contraltos and basses the low settings.

This sort of transposition is regarded as ok in music for voice and piano, but it still requires the music to be printed out afresh in the new key. Many pianists can transpose at sight - meaning that they can see the music in one key and play it in another - but in complex piano accompaniments it’s difficult to do accurately, so pianists are given the music in the key required by the singer.

(A word of warning for singers heading into an audition: it’s regarded as very bad form to present your pianist with the music in any key other than the one you require. To ask them to transpose on the spot is regarded as very rude, and many pianists will refuse to do so. It’s actually enshrined in some musicians’ agreements that they will not be required to transpose at sight.)

Transposition into keys other than the composer’s original happens much less in music for voice and orchestra, and apart from a few arias in which there is a long-standing tradition of transposition, it’s very rare in opera.

Johann Sebastian Bach is an interesting composer when it comes to keys, because he seems to have deliberately made life hard for himself. Bach wrote a number of concertos for violin and orchestra, and he later arranged these as concertos for harpsichord and orchestra. When making the harpsichord arrangement he always transposed the music into a lower key. For example, the violin concerto in E became the harpsichord concerto in D, and so forth. This is despite the fact that the orchestra part is identical in the two versions apart from the key. If he had just stayed in the same key and rearranged the solo violin part for harpsichord he could have used the orchestra parts from the violin version. As it was, the change in key meant he had to have the orchestral parts completely rewritten in the new key, which meant time and hard work in the 18th century. The choice of key was clearly important to Bach but we don’t really know why he changed key in this way.

Bach’s other solo violin concerto went through the same metamorphosis. It started life as a violin concerto in A minor and later became a harpsichord concerto in G minor.

So do we as music lovers and listeners need to know the key of a piece is in order to appreciate it? The simple answer is: probably not. In most cases, mentioning a key in a work’s title is a gratuitous piece of information. Saying “Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor” doesn’t really identify the work in question any more or less than just saying “Beethoven’s symphony no. 5”. To be told it’s in C minor will mean something technical to a musician, but virtually nothing to anyone else. It’s just another piece of information about the piece which is traditionally added to a work’s title.

It’s a bit like saying, “the light filled the room, illuminating everything”. At a basic level of communication, the words “illuminating everything” are unnecessary because if the light filled the room then we could safely assume that everything was illuminated. The addition of the last two words, though, enhances the information already given, rather than providing new information. Similarly, to mention a work’s key after its title enhances the information already given, but basically tells us nothing new which would help us further identify the work.

The exception to this would be if the key was the only identifying feature. For example, to say “Beethoven’s C minor symphony” would identify it as the fifth symphony because that’s the only Beethoven symphony written in that key, but that would be a slightly unusual way of naming the work. And if you said “Beethoven’s F major symphony” that would not be particularly helpful, because Beethoven wrote two symphonies in that key, the sixth and the eighth.

And remember, many works don’t have a key at all as they aren’t written in the tonal system, so the concept in such cases is irrelevant.

Most importantly of all, the average music lover without technical knowledge of music theory need not fear that they’re missing out on something when a work’s key is mentioned.

If I played you a piece of piano music and only told you it was by Mozart, then how much could you work out from just hearing it? Apart from knowing it was by Mozart (because I’d told you), you might safely assume it was a work for solo piano; the tone colour of the piano is unmistakable. But what key was it in? There are only two ways a person could tell. Either the person would know the work, and therefore know what key it was in, or they would have so-called “perfect pitch”. If you don’t know what key it’s in that means nothing at all and it has no effect at all on your ability to appreciate the music.

The term “perfect pitch” is bandied about a lot as if it’s something really remarkable or prodigious, but perfect pitch is little more than a good memory, whereby a person can remember what an A sounds like, or what a D flat sounds like.

If I then told you I had played Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K330 [listen], we would then encounter another piece on jargon: what does that K number mean?

This takes us into another way in which music is labelled and identified. At the time of Mozart’s death in 1791, only a small proportion of his music had been published. By the mid-19th century, Mozart scholarship was in a bad way, and very little was known about the dating or sources of the majority of Mozart’s music. In 1851, a pamphlet appeared which drew attention to this sad state of affairs, and this stirred the Austrian botanist, mineralogist, classicist, music historian and Mozart fanatic Ludwig Ritter von Köchel into undertaking a monumental and unprecedented task. Köchel spent the best part of the next decade compiling a chronological catalogue of all of Mozart’s known works. It was the first time anything of the sort had been undertaken for any composer and it was an extraordinary achievement. When it was finally published in 1862, Köchel had given every known Mozart work a catalogue number, and these numbers were applied, as much as possible, in chronological order of composition, so that K1 (K is for Köchel) is Mozart’s first composition and K626 is his last).

Ludwig Ritter von Köchel

Since Köchel’s time there have been numerous revisions of his catalogue, incorporating new discoveries and new dating of compositions. That’s why on recordings you might see two K numbers. The numbers from Köchel’s original catalogue have became universally used, even when more recent discoveries have shown these to be out of order. The numbers from the sixth edition, which was published in 1964 and reprinted in 1983, are often used after those of the first edition on CD covers or in concert programs. The most important things to remember are that the Mozart catalogue attempts to be chronological, and that the K numbers are not by Mozart!

The big advantage in having a catalogue like this is that it helps to identify works more accurately. For example, Mozart wrote four piano sonatas in C major, and with works that were not published during the composer’s lifetime, there’s no “no. 1” or “no. 4” to help distinguish among the four works that would be called “piano sonata in C major by Mozart”. Köchel gave these sonatas the numbers 279, 309, 330 and 545 respectively, thus immediately making it clear which is which, and in what order they were written.

A final comment about K numbers. Sometimes you see them as KV numbers. The catalogue is the same, it’s just that KV is German for “Köchel Verzeichnis” - Kochel catalogue.

So much for the K numbers, but what about other composers? At the start of the program I referred to the Bach Sinfonia as being BWV29. Now what does BWV mean? If you thought it was another catalogue, you’d be right, but there is a basic difference between the Köchel catalogue for Mozart’s works, and this one for the music of JS Bach.

The letters BWV stand for Bach Werke Verzeichnis. This is German for “Bach Compositions Catalogue” and as the title implies, it’s a catalogue system for the music of JS Bach. Devised by Wolfgang Schmieder, a German musicologist who died in 1990, the BWV catalogue was first published in 1950 and lists all of JS Bach’s known compositions. The big difference between Köchel and BWV is that BWV is not chronological. The works are arranged according to type, so BWV 1-216 are the cantatas, after which come the spurious or lost cantatas, then the Latin church works, then the passions and oratorios, then the motets, then the chorales, sacred songs and arias. That takes us up to about BWV 520. Then come the organ works, taking us up to BWV 771. Other keyboard works come next, then the works for lute, then the chamber music, taking us to BWV 1040. The orchestral works come next, and the catalogue is rounded off with works that don’t fit anywhere else and some organ works that were later added to the original catalogue because they weren’t known when the first edition was published. The catalogue currently runs to around 1,120 works.

So all these Ks and BWVs and the like are simply catalogue numbers for composers who don’t have reliable opus numbers. And opus numbers? “Opus” is just the Latin word for “work” as in “composition”. These are numbers that relate specifically to publication, so a composer’s first published work is opus 1, the next opus 2, and so on. Where opus numbers fall down is when a work is not published during a composer’s life but is published posthumously, therefore making the opus numbers out of order, such as happens in the works of Schumann and Brahms. Even more disconcerting is when a large number of works in a composer’s output don’t have opus numbers at all. Beethoven’s opus numbers are generally pretty good in determining chronology of the published works (with some notable exceptions), but there are lots of works without opus numbers because they weren’t published during or shortly after Beethoven’s lifetime. These works usually have a “WoO” number. These are initials and they stand for Werke ohne Opuszahl or “Compositions without opus number”. To make matters more interesting there are two other catalogues of Beethoven’s works, one by Grovers published in 1905 and one by Kinsky published in 1955. Neither has challenged the opus and WoO numbers in general usage.

Among other composer catalogue systems in common use is the system of D numbers for Schubert, devised by Otto Deutsch and first published in 1951. The Deutsch Schubert catalogue is chronological. Then there are the Wq numbers, used for CPE Bach. This is an abbreviation of the surname of Alfred Wotquenne, a Belgian musicologist whose catalogue of CPE Bach’s compositions (arranged according to type, not chronologically) was published in 1905. Wotquenne’s CPE Bach catalogue has started to be supplanted by that of E Eugene Helm (with H numbers), a chronological catalogue published in 1989. In 1906 Wotquenne published a catalogue of the music of Gluck, so Gluck’s music has Wq numbers as well.

Schmieder’s catalogue of BWV numbers for JS Bach led to similar catalogues for other Baroque composers - HWV for Handel, SWV for Schütz, LWV for Lully, even BuxWV for Buxtehude. And in another century entirely, there’s even WWV for Wagner.

The most prolific composer in the Western tradition, Georg Philipp Telemann, left something like 3,000 compositions from a life spanning 86 years. There are two catalogues, one for vocal music (TVWV) and one for instrumental works (TWV). The TWV catalogue attempts to organise this incredible life’s work in a way which might at first appear confusing. There’s no attempt to arrange his music chronologically. Rather it’s done according to both type and key.

For example, TWV55:D21 refers to an orchestral suite (section 55 of the TWV catalogue contains the orchestral suites), and among the 26 suites in D major, this is the 21st. [listen] It should be remembered that TWV uses German conventions when referring to keys: upper case means major, lower case means minor. So TWV55:e9 refers to an orchestral suite in E minor (of which there are ten known).

Haydn’s vast output is referred to by the Hoboken catalogue, or “Hob.” numbers. Arranged by type, the music of Haydn was painstakingly catalogued by Anthony van Hoboken between 1934 and 1978.

When it comes to catalogues, the most confusing of all is in the music of Vivaldi. There are hundreds and hundreds of known Vivaldi works: concertos, sonatas, operas and sacred music. These have been catalogued in one way or another by not one, but five different people. The Fanna, Malipiero, Pincherle and Rinaldi catalogues occasionally appear, but the catalogue in general use is the RV catalogue. RV stands for Ryom Verzeichnis, or Ryom catalogue. The work of Peter Ryom, this catalogue is the one now used pretty well exclusively for all of Vivaldi’s works.

There are so many different catalogues for composers’ works these days. Despite some of his music having opus numbers, Béla Bartók’s works have traditionally been identified using Sz numbers, referring to the complete catalogue of András Szőllősy. But in recent years this has been supplanted in some quarters by BB numbers, referring to a revised catalogue by László Somfai. Both aim to be chronological. And on it goes!

So let’s go back to where we started. The keys and catalogue numbers mentioned when you hear a piece of music named are mostly designed to help in accurately labelling a work. If these details don’t really mean anything to the listener this really should have no effect on one’s enjoyment or otherwise of a piece. After all, it’s the sound of the music that matters, isn’t it?

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2003.

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