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Classical Music Research Guide: Thematic Catalogs

Thematic Catalogs

About Catalogs of Composers' Works

Published catalogs of individual composers’ works form an important component of the scholarly literature. Because they typically quote the opening of each piece or movement in musical notation, they are known as “thematic catalogs,” even though it’s not the theme, but the incipit (beginning), that’s quoted. Some catalogs lack the musical notation but are similar to the thematic ones in other respects.

Some questions catalogs can usually answer:

  • How does it begin—is this the piece I’m looking for?
  • Authentic, doubtful, or spurious—did the composer actually write the piece?  When was it written?
  • First and early publications?
  • What’s the opus number or standard number of this piece?
  • What was the original instrumentation, key?
  • Did the composer revise it, take parts of it from earlier works, arrange it?
  • When, where, and by whom was it first performed?
  • Are there any surviving manuscripts (autographs or copies) of the piece? Where?
  • Is there notable published literature about this piece?

Get acquainted with catalogs by examining these titlesboth written in English.

A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives.  MUSICMEDIA REF ML134 .I9 S56 1999

Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1:  Thematic Catalogue of Works. . . .  MUSICMEDIA REF ML134 .C42 P69 2002 v.1

Catalog numbers for individual works

Catalogs assign a unique number to each composition.  Opus numbers are traditional, but the composer may not have assigned opus numbers to all works.  In such cases, the compiler of the catalog establishes a numbering system.  The numbers are typically preceded by initial letter of the compiler's last name.  The best known examples are the K numbers for Mozart:  the Mozart thematic catalog was initially created by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel. 

Other examples of catalog numbers are

D(eutsch) numbers for Schubert
H(oboken) numbers for Haydn
BWV numbers for Bach:  Bach Werke Verzeichnis [Catalog of Bach's Works], rather than S for Schmieder, the compiler.

Finding and Using Catalogs

How to find catalogs

Browse the shelves in ML134:  Most, but not all, catalogs are classed in ML134 and are kept in the reference section of the Music and Media Library. Within ML134, arrangement is by composer’s last name.

Search discoverE & other library catalogs, such as WorldCat: Use a subject search for [composer surname] catalogs.   This will return titles with subject headings such as Schumann, Robert, 1810-1856—Thematic catalogs.

Consult the Works section of the Grove Music Online article on the composer.  As an example, look at the information for Vivaldi—inconveniently enough, there are two well-known catalogs, each with its own set of numbers.

Consult Thematic Catalogues in Music: An Annotated Bibliography, 2d ed., by Barry S. Brook and Richard Viano (New York:  Pendragon, 1997), which lists catalogs contained in larger works as well as book-length publications.  MUSICMEDIA REF ML113 .B86 1997.

Search for web-based catalogs.

  • Start with WorldCat for its precise-searcing capabilities.
  • Expand your search with Google or another search engine.  Remember to allow for the British spelling catalogue when searching.

For contemporary composers, try the official website.

Using catalogs in foreign languages

You can get a lot of information even from a catalog in an unfamiliar language, as not much prose is involved, and terms tend to repeat from one catalog to the next. See the Foreign Terms tab above for some aids.  Feel free to ask the librarian for help.

Read more about thematic catalogs in Barry Brook's article "Thematic Catalogue" in Grove Music Online.

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