New Year’s Day post: A brief guide to Bach’s Works Catalogue (BWV), part 2


covered in part 1

II. Instrumental works, BWV 525-1080

A. Organ works BWV 525-771

covered in part 1

B. Solo Keyboard Works BWV 772-994

The “Clavier” or “Keyboard” in Bach’s time meant either the clavichord (which is velocity-sensitive like a piano, but is woefully lacking in sonic volume for unamplified public performance) or the harpsichord (which is loud enough for public performance but lacks velocity sensitivity). Only in his final decade did he have some experience with early fortepianos by Silbermann (and in fact was an agent for them): nevertheless, pianists like Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigori Sokolov,… all perform the following works on modern grand pianos.

First come two sets of didactic, yet highly musical, short pieces Bach originally wrote for teaching his eldest son W. Friedemann Bach, then continued to use as teaching materials:

BWV 772-786 Two-Part Inventions. These are contrapuntal pieces with two independent voices, which also help develop hand independence in the budding player. I know more than one piano student who can handle a Chopin étude yet balks at the supposedly much simpler Inventions: hand independence is the reason.

BWV 787-801 “Sinfonias”, better known today as the Three-Part Inventions. Here, a third independent voice is introduced, forcing the student to learn to cope with leading two independent voices in one hand (the extra voice may bounce back and forth between both hands). This is excellent preparation for the 3- and 4-voice fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier (see below.) Unlike typical “exercise” pieces, the Two- and Three-part inventions are highly musical if played as such.

BWV 802-805 Four duets (often played on organ as well)

BWV 806-811 English Suites (read: suites of court dance pieces in the English style). Perhaps underrated, but less popular than the

BWV 812-817 French Suites (ditto in the French style).

BWV 818-824 miscellaneous suites

BWV 825-830 Partitas (published as “Clavierübung I”/Keyboard Training, Vol. I)

BWV 831 Overture in the French Style in B minor (published as “Clavierübung II”/Keyboard Training, Vol. II”, bundled with the Italian Concerto BWV 971)

BWV 832 Suite in A major

BWV 833 Prelude and Partita in F

BWV 834-845 misc. single movements

BWV 846-869 Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. A set of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. While circular temperaments (a.k.a. “well-temperaments”) had started to gain acceptance in Bach’s time, permitting several minor composers to write suites of short pieces in all 24 keys, Bach’s WTC was the first major composition cycle that relied on well-temperament. (The 12-tone equal temperament almost exclusively used on keyboard instruments today is the most ‘universal’ special case. See my previous blog post on the subject.).

BWV 870-893 Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. The second such cycle Bach wrote, in some preludes forward-looking to the Classicist Era.

I forgot which pianist first referred to the two books of the WTC as the “Old Testament” of piano music, and to Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as the “New Testament”. Suffice to say that even Mozart and Beethoven held the WTC in awe — Mozart, not a man known for his modesty, referred to Bach as the only composer he could still learn something from, and Beethoven used to say “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer soll er heissen” — not Brook (=Bach), but Sea should be his name. Beethoven had learned the WTC by heart as a child to the point he was said to be able to transpose individual pieces on the fly to a key of the audience’s choice.

BWV 894-902 misc. preludes and fugues

BWV 903 Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. This work too presupposes well-temperament of some sort. While not the first of its kind, it must have startled audiences of the time. Bach would use chromaticism and modulations (or lack thereof) as expressive devices

BWV 904-9 Fantasia and Fugue pairs

BWV 910-916 Toccatas

BWV 917-923, 931-932 miscellaneous unpaired preludes and fantasias

BWV 924-930 part 1 of Twelve Little Preludes. The short pieces in these collections were intended as beginner teaching material for his children: several of them were later expanded and reworked into Inventions or Preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier

BWV 933-938 Six Little Preludes

BWV 930-942 part2 of Twelve Litte Preludes (BWV 999 completes the set)

BWV 944 Fantasy and Fugue in A minor

BWV 945-962 miscellaneous fugues and fughettas

BWV 963-970 sonatas and sonata movements

BWV 971 Italian Concerto in F major. A keyboard piece that clearly attempts to convey the flavor of an Italian-style concerto for strings and continuo in three movements. Published as one-half of “Keyboard Training, Vol. 2”. Still beloved by audiences.

BWV 972-987 Keyboard arrangements of concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello, Telemann,…

BWV 988 Goldberg Variations (“Keyboard Training, Vol. IV”). An aria with 30 variations, every third variation a canon at intervals rising by degrees from the unison in variation 3 through the ninth in variation 27, with finally a canonical quodlibet in variation 30. This was commissioned by Count Kayserling, a rich diplomat who employed Bach’s former pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg [not Jewish, despite his last name :)] as his private musician. A technically demanding yet intensely musical work that catapulted Glenn Gould to classical superstardom.

BWV 989 Aria and Variations in the Italian Style in A minor

BWV 990 Sarabande in C major (dubious)

BWV 991

BWV 992 Capriccio on the departure of the beloved brother in Bb major. An adolescent work, a lovely bit of program music on Bach’s part. It depicts in different scenes the sadness filling the family, the horn signals of the stagecoach,…

BWV 993 Capriccio in E major

BWV 994 Applicatio (fingering exercise) for W. F. Bach

C. Works for other solo instruments BWV 995-1013

BWV 995-1000 Works for Lute (or guitar)

BWV 1001-1006 Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. These peerless pieces do a unique job of making a single violin sound like multiple instruments, by a combination of double stops, arpeggiated chords, and hinting at multiple voices with snippets of a few notes each. The monumental Chaconne from the Partita in D minor BWV 1004 has been called “the Mount Everest of violin music”, and is often performed in arrangements for guitar, piano, and even full symphony orchestra.

BWV 1007-1012 Sonatas for Solo Cello. The one perennial favorite here is the prelude of the G major sonata.

BWV 1013 Partita for Solo Flute

D. Works for solo instruments with keyboard accompaniment BWV 1014-1040

Sonatas for violin and keyboard BWV 1014-1025

BWV 1026 fugue in G minor for violin and harpsichord

BWV 1027-1029 sonatas for cello and keyboard

BWV 1030-1035 six sonatas for flute and keyboard

E. Concertos for one or more solo instruments and orchestra

BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor

BWV 1042 violin concerto in E major

BWV 1043 “Double Concerto” for two violins in D minor

BWV 1044 Concerto for flute,  violin, and keyboard in A minor

1045 partial 1st movement of a violin concerto in D major

BWV 1046-1051 Six Brandenburg Concertos. These were written for the Margrave of Brandenburg’s court orchestra. Each concerto has a few solo instruments, the parts customized to the abilities of the respective musicians. For example, the 2nd Brandenburg concerto has a demanding trumpet part exploiting the skill of the trumpeter on staff; the 4th Brandenburg concerto includes both a fairly easy viola da gamba solo (today a cello solo) to be played by the nobleman himself, and a more demanding violin part; the sparkling, flashy keyboard solo in the first movement of the 5th concerto — one of the most marvelous expressions of joy in music that I know — was to be played by Bach himself, who as always would conduct from the keyboard.

BWV 1052-1059 concertos for single keyboard and orchestra

BWV 1060-1062 concertos for two keyboards and orchestra

BWV 1063-4 concertos for three keyboards and orchestra

BWV 1065 concerto for four keyboards and orchestra (actually an arrangement by Bach of a Vivaldi concerto)

F. The four orchestral suites BWV 1066-1069

Perennial audience favorites are the 2nd suite in B minor (with the “Badinerie” and “Bourree”) and the 3rd suite in D major, with the famous “Air” that isn’t really on the G string (at least not in the original key). The Procol Harum hit, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” was inspired by it — Gary Brooker tried to play the Air from memory, forgot how it went after two bars, then made up something on the fly — and that became the instrumental basis for the song.

G. Miscellaneous BWV 1070-1078

Miscellaneous works 1070-1071

Canons BWV 1072-1078

H. Bach’s musical testament (my term) BWV 1079-1080

BWV 1079 The Musical Offering. A set of contrapuntal variations on a theme assigned by Frederick II of Prussia (a keen amateur flutist, who employed Bach’s 2nd son C. P. E. Bach as his court music director). Most of the variations are canonical, except for the Ricercar a 3, a three-part fugue that appears to be Bach writing down from memory what he had improvised at the king’s request, and the Ricercar a 6, a six-voice fugue that the king had requested, but Bach felt incapable of improvising to his own musical standard and requested to be allowed to submit later. Incidentally, the instrument Bach improvised the Ricercar a 3 on was an early fortepiano built by Silbermann: if Bach himself didn’t eschew the piano, then why should we?

BWV 1080 The Art Of The Fugue. Effectively Bach teaching a variety of fugue writing and counterpoint techniques by example. The entire long work is in D minor, but to the attentive ear a mesmerizing cathedral of absolute music. The last fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, also titled “Fugue with three subjects” (=triple fugue) in C. P. E. Bach’s hand, breaks off in manuscript shortly after Bach introduces his own name (in German note names) as the third theme. The story told by C. P. E. Bach that his father had a fatal stroke at the point the music breaks off is poignant but ahistorical: as Christoph Wolff explains in “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician”, the work had been completed up to this point some time earlier, but Bach actually was seeking to introduce the main theme of the cycle as the fourth subject (which would have made it Bach’s only quadruple fugue) for the climax of the work. This is a major contrapuntal puzzle and apparently Bach tried to work it out on a missing fragment.

Bach clearly saw BWV1080 as the capstone of his musical legacy, as he made arrangements to have it printed during his lifetime, at great expense to himself. (It was actually published the year after his death.) There are no indications for which instrument(s) it was composed, but it is probably no accident that everything fits in four octaves and is playable by one (very skilled) keyboardist. Many recordings exist, ranging from string quartets via a recorder quartet and organ (Helmut Walcha) to Hermann Scherchen’s full orchestral arrangement: Bach piano interpreters like Grigori Sokolov, Glenn Gould, and Tatiana Nikolayeva have done the work perhaps the most justice.

In honor of New Year’s Day, here is the 1st movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, played by the late great Karl Richter and his orchestra. Enjoy!

3 thoughts on “New Year’s Day post: A brief guide to Bach’s Works Catalogue (BWV), part 2

  1. Bookmarked! Thank you! And an even bigger thank you for the video of the Brandenburg movement. Riveting!

    May you have a very Happy New Year!

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