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What's in a Number?

When does 5 come before 4, and 3 equal 1? In the sometimes-confusing numbering systems of classical music! Read on to find out why you should never have Mendelssohn, Satie, or Debussy do your taxes.Mendelssohn's Symphonies, Nos. 1, 5, 3, 2, and 4

In 1824, Felix Mendelssohn completed his first symphony at the tender age of 15. It received its first performance at his sister Fanny’s 19th birthday party and debuted publicly a few years later. Critics hailed it as a striking piece by a promising young composer, who was already known as a child prodigy. Today, it’s seen as an early chapter in a remarkable composing career.

You would think that the next chapter in that story would be Mendelssohn’s second symphony. In fact, a few years after the public premiere of his 1st, Mendelssohn did start work on another symphony - which we know this as his 5th Symphony. Then, he started work on his 3rd, but didn’t finish it until long after he had written his 4th. His 2nd came in between the 3rd and 4th, although that piece was never even called a symphony until after Mendelssohn’s death.

Confused? Welcome to the wonderful world of classical music numbering!

When you hear us say “so-and-so’s 4th symphony,” you’d think that it would be pretty easy to figure out which piece we’re talking about. For instance, the first symphony that Brahms ever wrote is known as… Brahms’ 1st Symphony! After that, he wrote his 2nd, then his 3rd, and then finally his 4th. Easy, right?

Well, kind of. Broadly speaking, pieces are numbered in order of composition and/or publication. Most of the time, these are roughly the same; a composer finishes a piece, maybe gets it premiered, and then sends it off to a publisher. This isn’t always the case, though, which can lead to some confusion.

For example, a composer might work on a few pieces at the same time, and even finish them all at once. Beethoven wrote his 5th and 6th Symphonies at roughly the same time and premiered them at the same concert. Their numbering was chosen by his publisher. Or, a composer could hold onto a piece for a while, only releasing it after others that were written later.

This is one of Mendelssohn’s issues; he spent over a decade refining what would become his “3rd” Symphony, writing others in the meantime. He was also unsatisfied with both his 4th and 5th symphonies and withheld them from being published during his lifetime. They got their numbers when they were finally published, years after his death.

Sometimes, though, there’s just no logical answer. Mendelssohn, for whatever reason, just didn’t write a 2nd symphony. When he died, he left four orchestral symphonies, which were numbered 1, 3, 4, and 5. A publisher sensed an opportunity there, and published one of Mendelssohn’s unrelated choral works as his “2nd Symphony,” filling the gap with a piece that was neither a symphony nor a second anything.

Satie, Debussy, and Gymnopedies... 3 and 1? 1 and 3? And what about No. 2?

Satie’s Gymnopedies provide another wonderful opportunity for confusion. Short, sweet, and wonderfully relaxing, Satie wrote them as a set of three pieces. Yet when it came time to publish them, Satie only printed the 1st and 3rd, waiting seven years before publishing the 2nd. (Think that’s weird? He also supposedly only ate white foods and started his own cult, so counting “1, 3, 2” is the least of it.)

Enter Claude Debussy. He arranged the 1st and 3rd Gymnopedies for orchestra. For some reason, though, Debussy decided to switch the numbers around, making the 1st the 3rd and the 3rd the 1st. The 2nd was yet again ignored, and to this day you’re more likely to hear the 1st and 3rd (in some order) than the lonely 2nd.

If middle children were looking for a theme song, Satie’s 2nd Gymnopedie would be an excellent choice.

More numerical chaos: Bach and Beethoven

There’s much more numbering tomfoolery out there. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were all written separately and only bundled together when Bach sent them along as a gift to a nobleman he was trying to butter up.

Their numbering has nothing to do with the order in which they were written or performed. Beethoven wrote four overtures for his opera Fidelio, known as his “Leonore Overtures” after the opera’s working title. They were written in the order 2nd-3rd-1st-4th, meaning that neither their name nor the number attached to them makes much sense.

If your head is spinning, don’t worry! The numbers very rarely have much meaning when it comes to the actual music. In fact, that’s why we’ll often use nicknames rather than numbers. “Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata” and “Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony” sound so much nicer than “14th Sonata” or “4th Symphony,” and they can set the mood for the music you’re about to hear.  

So, the next time you hear us mention a number on the air, just remember that we’re talking about composers, not mathematicians. Their numberings may not make much sense, but they did know their perfect fourths and minor thirds. And even the Count von Count can appreciate a good piece of music!

Tyler Alderson was formerly Operations Manager for CRB.