Bach’s 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

Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (The catalogue of Bach’s works - BWVs)

When Bach’s works were first being catalogued in the mid-nineteenth century, a decision had to be made: do we go for a chronological catalogue (so that BWV 1 would mean it was the earliest piece written and BWV 1004 would have been a much later work)? Or do we go thematically, so that BWV 1 means “It’s a choral piece” and BWV 1004 means “It’s something for the violin”? In either case, "BWV" was the abbreviation of the full-on German for "catalogue of Bach's works" and he's been saddled with his BWV typographical curse ever since.

They decided on the thematic approach. This was for lots of good reasons -like the fact that Bach didn’t publish a lot of work in his lifetime, so knowing precisely when a particular work was written is often problematic. Not knowing your dates makes a chronological approach to something a bit of a non-starter!

This means that BWV 1 is a choral composition (dating from around 1725), whereas BWV 1004 is a violin work (dating from around 1717). BWV 2 is therefore also going to be a choral work, and BWV 1005 also happens to be a violin sonata. Incrementing BWVs means the type of work changes, not that they get later in date.

If you are used to composers having “opus numbers”, where “Op. 1” means it was written when they were a teenager and “Op. 98” means they had syphilis and were about to die, it’s a cataloguing system that can take a bit of getting used to. 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, regardless of their 'nature' or where in the original catalogue they would have been collected. You therefore end up with a lump of 'miscellaneous' works, together with a big chunk of organ works in the 1090+ series, rather than the 525-598 range where they should 'naturally' belong.

The various numbers were originally assigned by a chap called Wolfgang Schmeider in his 1950 publication of the catalogue. You may occasionally see a piece referenced as S.1066 …it’s exactly the same thing as BWV 1066. The convention these days is to use BWV numbers, rather than Schmeider numbers, however.

Shortcut to the Bach Catalogue