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The History of the Breitkopf Collection of J. S. Bach’s Four-Part Chorales
By Thomas Braatz (September 2006)

The name of Breitkopf has become the main association with a collection of a large number of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 4-pt. chorales which are derived from Bach’s sacred vocal music (cantatas, Passions, oratorios, motets, etc.) and are presented in a reduced format (only two staves) to make them more easily playable on any keyboard instrument. In this type of reduction some important musical information contained in the original format (usually the final chorale of a cantata) is lost: 1.) independent instrumental parts; 2. figured bass; 3.) articulation; 4) dynamics; and, most importantly of all, 5.) the original chorale text. Thus it becomes apparent that the original purpose was not to preserve Bach’s composition of these wonderful chorales as is, but simply to use these reductions to demonstrate Bach’s supreme artistry in the harmonization of a chorale. Indeed, this purpose became its raison d'ètre for more than a century after the first publication of this collection by Breitkopf in the late 18th century. It was not until about a century after Bach’s death that some musicians were beginning to realize that these often audacious harmonizations did not make much sense considered simply in isolation. In the 2nd half of the 19th century Ludwig Erk1 published these chorales with the assigned chorale texts, as far as those texts could be determined at that time.

One of the earliest separately existing chorale collections is a group of three wedding chorales (BWV 250, BWV 251, and BWV 252) which date back to 1734 or earlier.2 Johann Ludwig Dietel (1713-1773), who sang in the Thomanerchor under Bach’s direction from 1727 to1735, extracted from Bach’s sacred choral music 149 four-part chorales and scored each part on a separate staff (open score) but sometimes, not always, omitted any independent instrumental parts as well as the underlying text.3 These chorale settings from cantatas, Passions, oratorios, motets (for some of these there is no record of their existence), were available to Dietel when he copied them between 1734 and 1735. The fact that the parts are not marked (soprano, alto, etc.) and that the chorale texts are always missing has led the editors of the NBA to conclude that these chorales were intended more for study than for any performance of them.

The first attempt to publish a substantial number of Bach’s four-part chorale settings was accomplished under great difficulties by Friedrich Wilhelm Birnstiel whose publishing enterprise in Berlin and Leipzig existed from 1750 to 1782.4 He just barely succeeded in publishing two of the three intended volumes with 100 chorale settings in each: Volume I in 1765 and Volume II in 1769. These settings were published in modern notation with two staves, the top one had a soprano clef and the bottom a bass clef. No attempt was made to include even just a few independent instrumental parts and the chorale texts, of course, were missing entirely.

NBA KB III/2.2, Bärenreiter, 1996, p. 18 states:

Die Sätze sind auf zwei Systemen (Sopran- und Baßschlüssel) ohne Bezifferungen wiedergegeben.” [“The settings {from both the 1765 and 1769 editions} are given on two staves {with soprano and bass clefs} without any figured bass.”]

See an example from a reprint of this edition published by Georg Olms in 1975 (ISBN 3-487-05487-6):5

Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783), in a letter to Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf (1719-1794) dated June 19, 1777, reported on just how these two volumes came about. The editing of the first volume was begun by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718-1795) who found himself in financial straits. Birnstiel agreed to pay Marpurg 12 Groschen for correcting and sending in a clean copy of a single chorale. A printed folio page (actually including four book pages printed on both sides) would contain about two chorales on each page and would yield a total of eight chorales for which Marpurg would receive 4 Reichstaler (1 Taler = 24 Groschen). When Marpurg with the help of Kirnberger’s connections was given a position in the Royal Lottery Office in 1763, Marpurg, after completing the first volume, was no longer willing to finish what he had begun. As a result, Birnstiel was forced to turn to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) who requested for preparing the second volume a remuneration which was three times the amount that Marpurg had been paid.

When the first volume appeared at the Leipzig Fair during Easter 1765, there was a foreword written by C.P.E. Bach with a rather long explanation that is worth repeating here:

The publisher gave me the task of preparing this collection after several folio pages had already been printed. As a result of this I discovered that four chorales had been included that were not set by my father. The rest were by him, but originally composed with a separate staff for each voice part. These have been reduced to only two staves for those who would like to play them on an organ or any other keyboard instrument for which these settings have been more clearly arranged. If you desire to sing them with four voices and parts go beyond the ranges of these voices, they can be transposed accordingly. In those places where the bass line goes very low compared to the other voice parts, so low that the pedal cannot play it, the part should then be transposed up an octave. The lower interval is used whenever the bass part goes above the normal tenor range. Due to these circumstances, my deceased father had always had a 16-foot instrument play along. For those ‘weak-sighted’ individuals to whom certain passages may appear to be in error, we have added for clarity, wherever necessary, one or two short diagonal lines to indicate where each part is going. I hope that this collection will be useful and also bring much pleasure without making it necessary for me to express additional praise for the harmony of these chorales. My father does not need this type of recommendation. One normally expects masterpieces from him. Those connoisseurs of the art of harmonizing and composing settings will likewise not withhold their praise when they observe with appropriate attentiveness the very unusual manner my father uses to set up harmony in these settings, the natural flow of the inner voices as well as the bass, factors which set these chorale settings apart from any others. How much more useful can such a careful consideration of these settings be for anyone desirous of learning the art of harmonizing a melody and who can today deny the advantage given by beginning to learn harmony using these chorales rather than by the stiff and pedantic rules of counterpoint? In conclusion, I can report to those who particularly love chorales that this collection is the equivalent to an entire hymnal. After this first volume there will be two additional ones, altogether containing more than 300 chorales.

C.P.E. Bach’s actual contribution to this Birnstiel collection began at the earliest with No. 33 and at the latest with No. 41 of Volume 1.

According to Kirnberger’s letter to Breitkopf (mentioned above), C.P.E. Bach officially assumed his position in Hamburg in March, 1768. Again this forced Birnstiel to turn to someone else to continue with Volume 2. This time it was another Thomaner who had also studied music privately with Bach, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-1774) agreed to continue the project as Correctur. Birnstiel now purchased from Breitkopf for 30 Taler an error-riddled manuscript collection containing possibly as many as 240 chorales, each part on separate staff. It is not at all clear whether this was based on Dietel’s collection. This second volume with another 100 chorales appeared in May, 1769. There was no foreword nor was there the usual list of printing errors.

C.P.E. Bach felt snubbed because he had lost all the income he might have received for the second volume and that its publishing release had done injury to his father’s name. C.P.E. Bach was so offended by the publication of this volume that he issued a blistering critique that appeared on May 30, 1769 in the “Der Hamburgische, unpartheyische Correspondent”. In it he accused the publisher of a great number of errors and warned anyone who might have been interested in purchasing this second volume not to allow himself to be duped by the publisher into acquiring it. This devastating critique caused a great financial loss for Birnstiel because now the public perceived this second volume to be full of nothing but errors. The reality now in retrospect in regard to Volume 2 compared to Volume 1 is that there is little difference in the amount of errors contained in each. Unfortunately, the planned Birnstiel edition was not completed beyond the second volume. Thus Birnstiel’s well-intentioned project ended prematurely in defeat and would have to be approached in another way by another publisher.

Again it is Kirnberger, in his letters to Breitkopf, who provides us with information about what happened next. Soon after C.P.E. Bach’s scathing critique of Birnstiel’s second volume, Kirnberger must have suggested to C.P.E. Bach that the latter should think of preparing a new edition of the four-part chorales in a modern format similar to what Birnstiel had attempted. As early as May 21, 1769, C.P.E. Bach wrote to Kirnberger that he would like to see “a sensible/proper (“vernünftige”) edition of this father’s chorales”. It is possible that Kirnberger had already approached Breitkopf in Leipzig regarding this possibility since in his letter, C.P.E. Bach requested that Kirnberger serve as his negotiator in this matter of a new edition. In addition, C.P.E. Bach offered to be the editor for all three following parts/volumes which would appear in sequential order and that he insisted that his own name must appear on each volume including the first one. [There is perhaps some obscure, unexplained reason here why the set of four volumes which appeared in successive order should be referred to in this rather cumbersome way.] Another important demand was that C.P.E. Bach wanted to be paid in advance for all four volumes. From this point on, the negotiations must have been stymied for quite some time since it was not until eight years later, on May 10, 1777, that Kirnberger once again approached Breitkopf on this matter, but this time Kirnberger was asking Breitkopf to allow him to edit this edition alone without C.P.E. Bach’s help. (Kirnberger had already previously acquired the manuscripts of the Bach chorale collection from C.P.E. Bach in 1771 for 12 Louisdor. Thus Kirnberger had acquired the sole rights for publishing them.) A month after his first contact with Breitkopf on his own behalf on June 7, 1777, Kirnberger explained his plan in more concrete terms: “In regard to the Bach chorales, of which there are now more than 400 that C.P.E. Bach had collected and many of which are in C.P.E. Bach’s own hand, it is a matter very dear to my heart that these chorales which I now possess should be preserved for posterity for all musicians, composers and connoisseurs of music.” In addition, Kirnberger promised to give these manuscripts to Breitkopf for free if Breitkopf, in turn, would consent to have them printed. Breitkopf hesitated and spent a lot of time thinking about it, but finally, in time for the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1778, the first announcement of the plan to undertake the publishing of these chorales was made. On August 20, 1781 the call for subscriptions for this new edition of the Bach chorales went out for the first time, a call that was repeated several times until January, 1782. On October 2, 1781, Kirnberger is mentioned for the first time as editor. The results of this call for subscriptions are not known, but they cannot have been very large since Breitkopf still continued his delaying tactics until finally Kirnberger, on June 16, 1783, angrily demanded the return of the chorale manuscripts which had been part of the deal that had been negotiated. Not long thereafter, on July 27, 1783, Kirnberger died without experiencing any visible indications of success with his publishing plan after all the effort he had expended in trying to realize it. The manuscripts of the chorale collection remained in Breitkopf’s possession. There is no way now to determine what it was that finally moved Breitkopf to go ahead with the publishing of the Bach chorales; however, C.P.E. Bach must once again have been included in the negotiations since his signed foreword appears at the beginning of the collection. Now the four separate volumes appeared, one each year, from 1784 until 1787.

C.P.E. Bach’s foreword for the Breitkopf collection, appearing only in Volume 1, is simply an updated version of the one that he had already written for Birnstiel. Here are some portions which are different:

This collection of chorales, after its earlier release under my editorship, has undergone another careful revision by me so that all the errors which had crept into it have been removed. The manuscripts of these chorales were transferred to the present publisher [Breitkopf] shortly before the death of Mr. Kirnberger, to whom I had entrusted them as early as 1771. In this new edition all the settings not composed by my father, settings which had somehow gotten mixed in with the authentic ones, have been removed so that all of the settings which now appear in this volume and the volumes which will follow are genuine settings by my father. Actually, they had originally appeared on four staves instead of only two….

After this first part, three more will follow. Altogether there will be over 300 settings. [370 settings were published in this collection.]

Other later publications containing these chorale settings by Bach have appeared but none has rivaled the Breitkopf edition. Even the original Breitkopf edition created a problem by skipping a chorale which had to be added back over forty years later. This omission wacaused by the need to provide for reasonable page turns. Since this omission occurred within the established series and not at the end where it would not be noticed, all the Breikopf numbers (= BR) will be off by one after a certain point thus causing problems for anyone attempting to conflate the two main Breitkopf editions with their separate numbering systems.

The later, so-called 3rd edition of chorale settings was edited by Carl Ferdinand Becker (1804-1877) and published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1832. It contains in one volume 371 instead of the original 370 settings and has, in addition, an "Anhang" containing 69 Bach chorales with only chorale melody and a figured bass derived from the Schemelli Song Book BWV 439-507. In 1843, C.F. Becker published another collection of Bach's chorales (Publisher: Robert Friese, Leipzig) in which he included 360 settings. He had removed the doublets and arranged the sequence according to the melody (not the incipit of the chorale text). And then there is at mid-century the Ludwig Erk collection of 319 chorale settings published by C.F. Peters in 1850 and 1865. The most reliable system for referencing the Breitkopf numbers is to adopt the system of numbering used by the NBA which is accurately documented on the Bach Cantatas Website (Webmaster: Aryeh Oron).

There are numerous manuscript copies from the 18th and 19th centuries containing various totals of Bach’s chorale settings. Here are some important ones from the 18th century: 149 (Dietel), 111 (unknown), 200 (handwritten copies of the Birnstiel collection), 252, 72 (in Spitta’s manuscript collection), 126 (Penzel). These manuscripts have provided variant settings or even some which did not exist in the Breitkopf collection. A few of these are ‘deest’ as of today and still await official recognition even though they have already been included in the NBA. Most of these early collections are not keyboard reductions but rather include four staves for each vocal part.

See the complete list of the 371 4-Part Chorales at: 371 4-Part Chorales sorted by Breitkopf Number



[1] Ludwig Erk, Johann Sebastian Bachs Choralgesänge und geistliche Arien, Leipzig, Part I, 1850, Part II, 1865
[2] NBA KB III/2.1, Bärenreiter, 1991, p. 17. These chorales appear as Breitkopf #328, 329, and 346 respectively.
[3] ibid., pp. 21-101
[4] NBA KB III/2.2, B
ärenreiter, 1996, pp. 15-24
[5] Contributed by Craig Sapp, Stanford University (July 9, 2009)


This history of the Breitkopf Collection has been prepared by Thomas Braatz and is based upon information given in the NBA KBs listed above.

© 2006 Thomas Braatz
Contributed by Thomas Braatz (original article: September 2006; addition: July 2009)


Chorales BWV 250-438
Recordings | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Chorales in Bach's Vocal Works: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Hidden Chorale Melody Allusions | Passion Chorale
Individual Recordings:
Hilliard - Morimur | Chorales - Matt | Chorales - Rilling | Preludi ai Corali - Quartetto Italiani di Viola Da Gamba
Chorales BWV 250-300 | Chorales BWV 301-350 | Chorales BWV 351-400 | Chorales BWV 401-438
Texts & English Translations of Chorales:
Sorted by Title
Chorale Melodies:
Sorted by Title | 371 4-Part Chorales sorted by Breitkopf Number | Explanation
MIDI files of the Chorales:
Cantatas BWV 1-197 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-248 | Chorales BWV 250-438
The Origin of the Texts of the Chorales [A. Schweitzer] | The Origin of the Melodies of the Chorales [A. Schweitzer] | The Chorale in the Church Service [A. Schweitzer] | Choral / Chorale [C.S. Terry] | The History of the Breitkopf Collection of J. S. Bach’s Four-Part Chorales [T. Braatz] | Chorale Melody Allusions in Bach's Vocal Works [T. Braatz]
Hymnals used by Bach | Abbreviations used for the Chorales | Links to other Sites on the Chorales


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Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 14:15