Bach’s BWV Numbers Explained

One can feel sorry for Bach, privately, for one thing: he has been afflicted with BWV numbers, great ugly things with not a breath of poetry about them. It is unfair that any composer should be lumbered with such a typographical curse.

Bluff your way in Music
Peter Gammond, 1985

What Other Composers Have…

If you’re listing the compositional works of, say, Benjamin Britten, you generally talk “opus numbers” –opus being latin for ‘work’ or ‘piece’. So Britten’s Opus 33 was the thirty-third published work he produced (sort of: composers are allowed to withdraw works after first publication if they grow dissatisfied with them and then re-use the relevant opus number later on… and Britten did that a few times. But the gist of someone’s Op. 33 being their 33rd published work is mostly true!)

Britten’s Op. 33 happens to be his opera Peter Grimes. If you know that Peter Grimes was first produced in 1945, you can therefore guess that Britten’s Opus 34 was probably published around 1946ish (and you’d be about right: Britten’s Op. 34 is his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was indeed first performed in 1946, though written a little earlier). In other words, given a list of Opus numbers, you know that Op. 1 was that composer’s first published work and Op. 99 is likely to be amongst his later output. In a world where professional composers publish music regularly, listing a composer’s work by opus number is a sensible way of doing things: you get a list of works laid out in an order that corresponds with the passing of time and the consequent development of a composer’s skill and technique.

But music composition hasn’t always been a respected profession! Back in the seventeenth century, a composer produced music for the church or for the local aristocrat: he was probably their servant, on their payroll, and churned out ‘occasional music’ (that is, music for occasions) much as the UK’s poet laureate is expected to knock off a poetical line or three on significant royal or national occasions. You didn’t generally expect to get a commercial publishing house printing your composition afterwards, largely because your composition now belonged to the archbishop or duke who’d paid you for it! This means that composers such as Handel, Bach, Haydn and others working in that period wouldn’t generally have had a large number of published works, neatly capable of being sorted by year of publication and numbered from Op. 1 upwards -and this means there’s no particularly straightforward way to list their works.

In these cases, the usual approach is to discard chronology altogether and go ‘thematic’. That is, get all a composer’s works for (say) symphony orchestra together and number them; then get all his works for choir together, and number them from wherever the symphonies got to and so on. Haydn has been catalogued this way, for example. Anthony van Hoboken decided to group Haydn’s works together in this sort of way and give them a category number in Roman numerals; everything within that category then got numbered sequentially with an Arabic numeral, with the aim to order things within each category in a vaguely chronological way. Thus, Haydn’s Symphony number 1 is officially catalogued as Hob. I/1 (‘I’ being the ‘symphony’ category, and ‘1’ being the earliest work known within that category). His 44th symphony is therefore Hob. I/44. Masses are Hoboken category XXII, though, so Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai is Hob.XXII/6, since it’s the sixth mass he’s known to have written.

Now: you wouldn’t know from comparing the catalogue reference numbers “Hob.I/44” with “Hob.XXII/6″… but both works were produced at almost the same time as each other, in 1772. That’s the problem with listing things by category: you get no sense from the numbers used that different works in different categories date to approximately the same time. But if a composer doesn’t publish much in his lifetime (with nice dates on the fronticepiece), you don’t have a lot of choice but to go for organising by theme.

Bach and the BWVs

So now we get to Bach: his works were first being collected and printed in then-modern performing editions in the mid-nineteenth century and the musicologists involved had precisely this dilemma: should they try and organise things by date, or by theme? Given that Bach only printed about 117 works in his lifetime -out of a total output of around 1100 works!- it was fairly obvious that obtaining reliable, specific dates for the vast bulk of his output would be difficult. So: they decided on the thematic approach. Paying for all the musicological work involved in preparing the music for publication was the Bach Society (in German, the Bach-Gesellschaft). The society started publishing works in 1851 and finished their work in 1900, 46 volumes later. The collected work thus published was known as the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe (‘ausgabe’ literally means ‘output’). The BGA was, as previously mentioned,  organised by themes -with Bach’s cantatas kicking off proceedings.

In 1950, Wolfgang Schmeider decided to publish a revised catalogue of Bach’s works (just the catalogue, not the music), since many new pieces had been discovered since the Bach Society had declared their work complete. He called his publication the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, meaning the “Bach Work List” (or ‘directory’ or ‘index’) -the abbreviation of which is simply BWV.

For the most part, Schmeider followed the BGA’s thematic approach: his numbers also start at 1 with a Cantata. Around about number 244, he starts numbering the Passions; about the 525 mark and we’re into the organ pieces. As the BWVs increment, therefore, the type of work changes, not the date. There is thus no suggestion that BWV 1046 is later in time than BWV 1, for example -which is just as well, because BWV 1 was written in 1725 some four years after BWV 1046.

As mentioned earlier, if you are used to composers having “opus numbers”, where “Op. 1” means it was written when they were a teenager and “Op. 99” means they had syphilis and were about to die, BWVs are a cataloguing system that can take a bit of getting used to, because it’s impossible to get a sense of what was being written at a particular point in a composer’s life. But it has its charms, too: if you want to know all about Bach’s choral cantatas, for example, you know immediately (or after a quick look-up on Google) that you have to master BWVs 1 to 224. End of story! (There needs to be a </s> tag in there somewhere 🙂 )

The complete Bach corpus is thus catalogued according to the following thematic groupings (some less grouped than others, I think!):

  • BWV 1 – 224 : Cantatas
  • BWV 225 – 231: Motets
  • BWV 232 – 243a: Liturgical works (masses, magnificats, sanctuses etc)
  • BWV 244 – 249: Passions
  • BWV 250 – 438: Chorales
  • BWV 439 – 524: Songs
  • BWV 525 – 530: Organ trio sonatas
  • BWV 531 – 582: Organ preludes, fugues, toccatas and fantasias
  • BWV 583 – 591: Organ miscellaneous
  • BWV 592 – 598: Organ concertos
  • BWV 599 – 764: Chorales
  • BWV 765 – 771: Partitas and chorale variations
  • BWV 772 – 994: Keyboard works
  • BWV 995 – 1000: Lute works
  • BWV 1001 – 1006: Violin sonatas and partitas
  • BWV 1007 – 1012: Cello suites
  • BWV 1013: Flute partita
  • BWV 1014 – 1026: Violin sonatas
  • BWV 1027 – 1029: Viola da gamba sonatas
  • BWV 1030 – 1035: Flute sonatas
  • BWV 1036 – 1040: Trio sonatas
  • BWV 1041 – 1045: Violin concertos
  • BWV 1046 – 1051: Brandenburg concertos
  • BWV 1052 – 1065: Keyboard concertos
  • BWV 1066 – 1071: Orchestral suites
  • BWV 1072 – 1078: Contrapuntal works (Canons)
  • BWV 1079: The Musical Offering
  • BWV 1080: The Art of Fugue
  • BWV 1081 – 1089: Miscellaneous
  • BWV 1090 – 1120: “Neumeister” chorale preludes for organ (discovered 1985)
  • BWV 1121 – 1128: Miscellaneous

It gets a bit messy towards the end (BWV 1081+) because they keep discovering new works by Bach which can only be tacked onto the end of the existing catalogue.

Since most of the various numbers were originally assigned by Wolfgang Schmeider, you may occasionally see a piece referenced as S.1066, where ‘S…’ is referred to as a piece’s Schmeider Number. That was the usual approach shortly after the first publication of the catalogue in 1950, but it rapidly fell out of favour and the use of BWV numbers these days is universal. In any event S.1066 is exactly the same thing as BWV 1066.

Peter Gammond regards BWV numbers, as you can see in the quote at the top of this page, as great ugly things with not a breath of poetry about them …but they are now standard fare, so you’d better get used to them if you’re going to do anything much with Bach these days. I also think they’re rather less ugly than Haydn’s Hoboken numbers, so perhaps we should be grateful to Mr. Schmeider after all…