New Year’s Day post: A brief guide to Bach’s Works Catalogue (BWV), part 1

Gone be the old year and its curses; welcome to the new year and its blessings! A happy, prosperous and healthy 2021 to you all!

At the request of my friend Erik Wingren (seconded by several other friends), here is Part 1 of a brief guide to the BWV catalogue of J. S. Bach’s music.

Why BWV and not Opus? Similar question for Händel, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Liszt,…

Everybody even vaguely familiar with classical music knows about opus numbers: literally “work numbers”, they are usually assigned in order of publication (not typically composition).

Yet they are not used for some classical composers whose preserved output was much more voluminous than what got published during their lifetime. Before the days of modern typesetting techniques — let alone computerized music typesetting using software like Sibelius or Lilypond — music publishing used to face high production costs (in Bach’s day, scores were hand-engraved on expensive copper plates used for printing). Thus, printers or publishers only engaged in it if they were assured a profit, or the production costs were subsidized by the composer or a wealthy patron. Beethoven was the first major composer who saw the bulk of his output published in his lifetime (including his nine symphonies and thirty-two piano sonatas), and even for him there is a catalogue of WoO: Werke ohne Opuszahl, works without an opus number — mostly piano pieces he never got around to publishing but were preserved in manuscript.

But Bach, Händel, Scarlatti (all three born in the same year 1685) all had prolific outputs that were never intended to be printed. For example, Scarlatti wrote 555 keyboard sonatas for his own performance use, and in his capacity as a tutor for Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, later Princess (then Queen) of Spain, herself an avid and skilled harpsichordist. We know them not by opus numbers, but by Kk. numbers, after the catalogue numbers assigned by the 20th-century harpsichordist and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick. Some of Händel’s prolific output for keyboard was printed, but his orchestral works, and the many operas and oratorios he wrote and produced for the stage have primarily been preserved as hand-copied performance scores. A German musicologist named Bernd Baselt compiled and organized a thematic catalogue of all his works, in which they were assigned HWV [Händel Werke Verzeichnis, or catalogue of Händel works] numbers. Following the pattern of the BWV (see below), works are arranged not in chronological order but grouped by type: for example, HWV 1-42 are all the Händel operas known at the time of compilation.

Similarly, there is the Hoboken catalogue for Haydn’s music, the Köchel catalogue for Mozart’s, the Deutsch catalogue for Schubert’s, the Searle catalogue for Liszt’s, and so on. The works of these composers are hence known as, e.g., Haydn’ oratorio The Creation (Die Schöpfung) Hob. XXI:2, Mozart’s Requiem K. 626, Schubert’s four impromptus for piano D. 935, and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor S. 178.

BWV or Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Index/Catalogue of Bach’s Works)

Wolfgang Schmieder was a German music librarian (employed first by Breitkopf and Härtel music publishers, then by the city of Frankfurt, finally by the Goethe University of Frankfurt) who in 1950 published his magnum opus, a systematic catalogue of all the then-known works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Catalogue entries were assigned BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) numbers, by which Bach’s works are universally referred to today. (Sometimes you see S. for Schmieder instead of BWV, but ‘same bride in a different gown’ as we say in Hebrew). The 1950 edition ran from BWV 1 (Cantata “How Bright Shines The Morning Star”/Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern) to BWV 1080 (The Art Of The Fugue); meanwhile, the 1998 edition has added recently discovered and authenticated works through BWV1128. So far in the 21st Century, BWV numbers through 1175 have been assigned.

The catalogue has three appendices:

  • “Anhang I” (appendix 1) for lost works known to have existed (e.g. cantatas for which the text has been preserved; loose bits of music insufficient to even attempt a reconstruction)
  • “Anhang II” for works of dubious authorship (such as the pieces in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, easy pieces written in Bach’s hand but that may have been copied or written down from memory by him for her)
  • “Anhang III” for misattributed works where he was able to find evidence of the real composer

In the meantime, a handful of works with BWV numbers have been conclusively identified as by another composer, but were not retroactively unassigned. For example, the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues for Organ BWV 553-560, a staple of organ students, are now believed to have been composed by Bach’s pupil Johann Tobias Krebs or his son Johann Ludwig Krebs.

On the flip side, a number of works from the Appendices have meanwhile conclusively been identified as Bach’s, and instead been moved to the main BWV list.

So what do we have?


BWV 1 through 197 are church cantatas—multi-movement works for voices and instruments, to be performed in church as part of a religious service. In his capacity as Thomaskantor (music director for the St.-Thomas Church in  Leipzig, as well as vice-principal of the attached secondary school) Bach wrote several annual cycles of these for the Sundays and feast days of the Lutheran ecclesiastical year: these are just the ones for which the vocal and orchestral parts (or, alternatively, a composer’s score) have been preserved.

Some of these cantatas, while performed in church, were written for secular occasions celebrated in church, notably the installation of new town councils at Mühlhausen and Leipzig. (So-called Ratswahlkantaten or Ratswechselkantaten.)

BWV 198 through 224 are mostly secular (“profane”) cantatas written/commissioned for special occasions, such as the “Hunting Cantata” BWV208 (whence the popular ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’), the “Coffee Cantata” Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht BWV 211 (be quiet, don’t chat), the “Peasants Cantata” BWV 212 (with its title in Saxon dialect rather than standard German, Mer Hahn e’ Neue Oberkeet, we have a new authority —in standard German, wir haben eine neue Obrigkeit).

Then follow six motets for church choir, BWV 225-230; BWV 231 has been unassigned as it was meanwhile identified as an alternate version of the second movement of cantata BWV 28.

BWV 232 through 243 are church music for the Latin mass — particularly noteworthy is the High Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

BWV 244 through 247 are musical settings of the Passion story according to the four evangelists: best known is of course the monumental Matthew Passion BWV 244. This was also the work that Felix Mendelssohn staged and was perhaps the first time that the general public of the 19th Century again heard music by Bach that wasn’t written for a keyboard instrument.

BWV 248 is the Christmas Oratorio, another masterful large-scale work.

BWV 249 was used (with different libretti) both as a secular cantata and an Easter Oratorio.

BWV 250–438 are the chorales: a capella four-part (SATB) chorale settings, mostly of Lutheran hymns. [SATB=soprano, alto, tenor, bass]

BWV 439 through BWV 523 are songs or arias (plus a few more chorales), many of them presumably written for his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach, a well-known soprano in her day. (At the Köthen court, half the music budget supposedly went to the salaries of husband and wife Bach, lest they seek employment elsewhere.)

BWV 524 is a Quodlibet (“whatever you like”, a form of vocal canon fantasy in many voices) written for a Bach family wedding.


A. Organ Works BWV 525-771

Bach being a virtuoso church organist, he wrote prolifically for the instrument. Many of the pieces have been preserved through manuscript copies by his students.

i. BWV 525-598 are “profane” organ works, i.e., not based on church chorales. These include some of Bach’s greatest compositions for any instrument.

BWV 525-530 are the six trio sonatas: three-movement, three-voice works in which each hand plays one independent voice and the pedals the third. (Being a devout Lutheran and clearly somebody who believed in numerical symbolism, Bach was obsessed with the number three representing the Christian Holy Trinity.) These pieces also lend themselves quite well for chamber performance, by the way — e.g., flute, oboe, and bassoon.

BWV 531-552 are prelude and fugue (or fantasy and fugue) pairs of various descriptions.  In many cases, there is a thematic link between the prelude and the fugue, but sometimes the only link is the key, such as in the mind-blowing Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, or the simple Prelude in D minor paired with the magnificent Fugue in BWV 539. (Bach was so proud of that fugue that he also recycled it for lute BWV 1000, and violin, 2nd movement of BWV1001 — both times transposed to G minor to better fit these instruments’ ranges)

Where do I even begin to pick favorites here? BWV 542 would be at the top of my list, followed by the fugue from BWV 539, but it’s an “embarrassment of riches”.

BWV 538 is also known as the “Dorian Toccata and Fugue”, even though it is actually in D minor rather than D dorian — it just happens that the manuscript didn’t have a key signature (which would be a single flat for D minor) but relied on accidentals.

BWV 552, also known as the “St. Anne” for some reason, bookends a set of chorale preludes and fugues, together published in Bach’s lifetime as “Keyboard Training, Vol. 3” (III. Clavierübung). BWV 552 takes the trinity symbolism to the max: in ternary meter, in Eb major (3 flats), with a triple fugue (i.e. with three themes), section lengths in powers of three,… It is a highly rewarding piece of music to listen to (requires great focus and stamina to play well) regardless of numerology or religious allusions.

BWV 551-563 are somewhat spurious shorter pieces.

BWV 564 is the great Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major — really a three-part concerto for organ solo, prefaced by an improvised-sounding opening section that displays Bach’s musical sense of humor as well as his exceptional pedal technique. The word ‘toccata’ comes from the Italian word toccare for ‘to touch’ or ‘to play [a musical instrument]’: it normally referred to a ‘warmup’ piece featuring rapid passagework and other flashy virtuosic devices.

BWV 565, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is of course the one church organ piece everybody who has not been living under a rock has heard. Scholarly consensus now appears to have settled on either a youth work by Bach, or an organ adaptation of a piece originally written for lute or violin. The mature Bach appears to have disowned it, as it contains compositional devices that he by then disparaged in the work of what he called Klavierhusaren (Hussars of the Keyboard Cavalry).

BWV 566 is the Toccata and Fugue in E major; then follow a series of major and minor works. Among those is the Fantasy in G major BWV 572, the “Little” Fugue in G minor BWV 578 (a brass band arrangement of which has also gained popularity), and above all the monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582.

BWV 592-597 are organ arrangements by Bach of concertos for strings and continuo by other composers. BWV 598 is a pedal exercise, possibly by his son C. P. E. Bach.

ii. BWV 599 through 771 are sacred music for organ, chorale preludes and choral variations (i.e. sets of variations on a religious hymn or choral). Those were played in church, usually ahead of the congregation’s singing of the same chorale. These include several sets of works as well as some individual ones.

BWV 599–644 comprise the Little Organ Book, beloved of intermediate-level church organ students to this day. It was clearly written to be within the technical grasp of Bach’s less-advanced students. BWV 639, “I Call Upon Thee, O Lord” is familiar to all science fiction fans as the theme music for the classic movie Solaris, based on the Stanislav Lem novel.

BWV 645-650 are a set of six somewhat more demanding chorales, published in 1748 by a printer named Schübler — hence their collective nickname of “The Six Schübler Chorales”. BWV 645 in particular, “Sleepers Awake” is a perennial listener’s favorite.

BWV 651-668 constitute the Eighteen [Great] Leipzig Chorales, technically demanding pieces written for performance by Bach himself (and perhaps his most advanced students). Some of these pieces even have double pedal parts.

BWV 669–689 are the chorales published as the middle of “Keyboard Training, Vol. 3”, the “meat” in the sandwich between the abovementioned prelude and fugue BWV552.

BWV 690–713 used to be known as the Kirnberger Collection

Miscellaneous chorale settings are gathered in BWV 714-765, some of them probably misattributed to Bach.

BWV 766-771 are sets of variations, each on one Chorale melody

BWV 766 “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag” and 767 “O G-tt, du frommer G-tt” are among Bach’s very earliest compositions that have been preserved, written as a teenager. BWV 768 “Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig“, written around 1705, already is a more mature work. BWV 769, a set of canonical variations on the Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel Hoch da komm Ich her” (I descend from the high heavens) was written as Bach’s admission piece to the Mizler Society of learned musicians and subsequently printed in 1747.

BWV 770 Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, may not be by Bach — though I love playing through that one, and could see it as a youth work like BWV 766 and BWV 767.

Let me say goodbye for now with BWV 564, performed by the late great French organist Michel Chapuis, and with a scrolling score courtesy of “Gerubach”. Happy New Year!

In part 2, I am giving a bird’s eye overview of the rest of the original BWV (771-1080): Bach’s voluminous output for solo keyboard instruments, his works for other chamber instruments and for orchestra, and the two large-scale contrapuntal masterpieces that can be seen as Bach’s musical testament.