Review and recommendation of BWV

I'd like to recommend an excellent book for the study of Bach's music. It's the BWV itself--the numerical and thematic catalogue of all of Bach's works. The current edition is 1998, edited by Alfred Dürr, Yoshitake Kobayashi, and Kirsten Beißwenger.

The musical beginning (incipit) of every movement of every piece is shown, along with the instrumentation, the dates of origin according to current research, and any connections with other pieces by Bach. Additionally, most of the pieces have a selected bibliography of books and articles so the reader can go see the reasoning behind the catalogue information. There's a handy two-page spread (pages 482-483) listing all the Sundays of the church year, and all the cantatas for each one.

One of the new features for this edition of BWV, over its predecessors, is the inclusion of an index (pages 471-481) of all the chorale melodies used by Bach, and all the pieces in which they appear. The editors explain in the preface (page XV) that their aim in that index is to be comprehensive, giving all the chorales with their correct hymnological titles--according to Johannes Zahn's standard catalogue of those. (Which itself is a 6-volume set listing some 9000 chorales...its most recent printing was 1963.) If Bach has used some alternate text with the chorale melody, that too is shown under the standard title of each.

To pick a couple of illustrative examples with familiar tunes:

  • "Vom Himmel hoch" [Zahn #346] is in the E-flat version of the Magnificat (243a), three times in the Christmas Oratorio (248), and in the organ pieces 606, 700, 701, 738, 738a, and 769. Its two alternate texts in BWV 248 are listed.
  • "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" [Zahn #5385a] is in BWV 161, 727, 135, 742, 153, 244, 270, 271, 248, and 159 with various texts. And, they refer also to BWV 25 and another movement of 161 (both of which employ that melody as a cantus firmus instrumentally while a more elaborate melody is being sung and played).

There are three appendices: (1) fragmentary pieces, (2) pieces where Bach's authorship is currently in question, and (3) pieces that have been determined to be definitely by other people (and therefore no longer part of the catalogue). Similarly they have bibliography in these appendices, but not the incipits.

Total, 490 pages. The BWV numbering itself came from the 19th century Bach-Gesellschaft where pieces were grouped together more or less by genre. That saddles us with various anomalies, such as having organ pieces among the harpsichord pieces and vice versa (where the 19th century scholars misjudged it), and missing numbers where pieces were found to be inauthentic, and alternate versions that had to be poked in between existing numbers. But, cross reference to all the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA) volumes is given also. This is designed to be a master comprehensive index to both editions, and indeed the standard reference as to numberings and titles of pieces.

The book is a steal at the price of approximately 40 Euros. I got this for Christmas several years ago, when its price was 50something, and have used it on average three or four times a week ever since, to look up all kinds of's a gold mine of information. This resource by Dürr, Kobayashi, and Beißwenger provides any lifelong learner (one of which I consider myself to be) the opportunity to access from top experts a considerable amount of scholarly knowledge about Bach's music. It's easy to spend hours flipping around through it, tracking the interconnections and compiling lists of articles to go get from Interlibrary Loan.

One thing I've started doing with my copy is writing in the volume numbers (or abbreviations) of two of the other Urtext editions I most often play from: Henle for the harpsichord music and Breitkopf for the organ music (with plenty of overlap). That, and sticking photocopies of the other editions' tables of contents into the back of this. So, when I want to locate a piece quickly I know that my notes about it are here in this BWV volume.

That 1998 "Kleine Ausgabe" is technically named "BWV 2a". A few words should also be said about its more comprehensive predecessor, Wolfgang Schmieder's "BWV 2" from 1990. That one is not entirely superseded by this; it has more detailed information in the bibliographies for many compositions, locations of manuscripts, etc. It is twice as long (1062 pages, vs c500 pages) and retails for 173 Euros.

The comprehensiveness of BWV gives an inspiring overview of the vastness of Bach's music. He wrote down so many musical ideas, and reused them, and altered them from situation to situation. Those 50 years of work by him are carefully and thoroughly catalogued here, and that represents a lot more than 50 years of work by other musicians and scholars.

It gets me to thinking about appreciation of Bach's music, in a bigger picture.

  • It requires performers to be thoroughly prepared in style and technique, thoughtful, imaginative, and logical...and versed not only in reproducing written notes, but also in improvisation and composition as vital parts of the re-creative (and co-creative) art performing Bach's music. There's so much he left unsaid on the pages, but giving just enough information such that performers who come to it with a background similar to his will do right things with it. It's the art of flexibility and organization, logical extrapolation, and recognition of shapes that can't be captured completely by any page.

  • It requires analysts and historical researchers to be reasonable, and to understand the contexts of evidence, always with an eye to practical considerations and Bach's teaching by musical example (for example, Bach's reuse and changing of the material, transpositions, reorchestrations for different occasions, revisions to improve the music). There's a necessary recognition of Bach the teacher and Bach the organizer, throughout his career. The music both uses and challenges the conventions of normalcy around Bach, as can be appreciated by knowing what that contemporary normalcy is in the all-important issues of style, technique, and aesthetics. That's what musicologists do: putting together a reasonable picture from all this evidence. (Two good recent examples: Laurence Dreyfus's book Bach and the Patterns of Invention, and David Yearsley's Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.)

  • Its beautiful expressive range, from the harshest dissonances to the calmest consonances, from the strictest counterpoint to the freest fantasy, is all in there and worked out with perfect balance. The freedom is tempered with reason and structure, and the strict parts still yield to the more important considerations of resulting sound and physical motions (i.e. it's practical music to be experienced by musicians who have worked on it, figuring out the problems and learning what types of solutions make sense). That is, it's an inspiration for composers and aestheticians, studying how all this works and how it can be used elsewhere, and studying why we perceive it as beautiful.

  • Bach's music also greatly stimulates people whose response to it is subjective and arbitrary. There's something for everyone to like and to resonate with, even as beginners to musical practice (or music theory or historiography). There are so many levels on which it moves/edifies/inspires people, quite apart from academic reason or the inclination to follow Bach's marvelous example as a practical musician.

  • Bach's music repays repeated study over a lifetime. As Bach himself asserted about all this craft and art, it's available to all who do the work as diligently as he did.

To sum up: the BWV belongs in the library of anyone who would be serious about studying Bach's music. It is almost up to date (research always continues, and the NBA has published several more volumes since 1998), and the editors remark in the Preface here that a newer edition of BWV is in preparation. Until that one appears, this is an essential resource showing an overview of Bach research as of autumn 1997.

Bradley Lehman
harpsichordist and organist
A.Mus.D. 1994, harpsichord, University of Michigan