“Correcting” Bach’s Parallel Fifths: Breitkopf Editorial Practices

In an earlier post I examined 20 instances of consecutive perfect fifths and octaves in the Bach chorales (not counting 26 “fermata” consecutives occurring between the final chord of one phrase and the first chord of the next).

Since writing that blog post, I discovered something else about these consecutive fifths and octaves as they appear in the Breitkopf edition of Bach chorales which was posthumously published in the 1780s. The discovery reflects on the editorial practices of those involved in putting that edition together (namely, C.P.E. Bach and, to a lesser extent, Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg) and it has significant consequences for analysis of the Bach chorales in general. I’ll explain all this, but first, a word about the background of the Breitkopf edition (which served as the basis for the ever-popular Riemenschneider edition) is necessary. If you know all about this edition, feel free to skip the bracketed passage below.

[After J.S. Bach’s death in 1750, there was a growing interest among his family and his admirers to both preserve (and in some respects even improve) his legacy as a composer and to present his works to a broader public in a manner that facilitates their study. Attention turned to the chorales in particular given their primacy as models of part-writing. The first efforts to produce a collection of Bach’s chorales were undertaken by the publisher Friedrich Wilhelm Birnstiel who engaged Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg as chief editor of the project. However, soon after embarking on Volume 1 of the projected three-volume collection (each volume containing 100 chorales), Marpurg secured a more desirable position that required him to step away from the project. Birnstiel was forced to approach C.P.E. Bach, who demanded a fee that tripled the rate paid to Marpurg, to complete Volume 1, which was published in 1765. After C.P.E. Bach himself took a new position in Hamburg, Birnstiel turned to yet another editor, this time Johann Friedrich Agricola, a former student of Bach’s at the Thomasschule. Agricola, unfortunately for Birnstiel, made a mess of Volume 2, which was published in 1769 and sold very poorly, due in no small part to a brutal critique from C.P.E. Bach for the volume’s numerous errors. Birnstiel decided to cut his losses and abandon the project.

The hope of preserving Bach’s chorales in a single collection dimmed, that is until Johann Philipp Kirnberger stepped in to resurrect the project. Kirnberger went to great lengths to persuade the publisher Breitkopf to take on the project with C.P.E. Bach back at the editorial helm. Emmanuel’s collection of chorales by his father had grown to nearly 400 by then, and Breitkopf finally agreed to proceed on the condition that enough advance subscriptions were secured. The Breitkopf edition of “370” Bach chorales was finally published in four volumes between the years 1784 and 1787 (one volume per year). A more thorough account of the history of the Breitkopf edition is available here. The Breitkopf can be viewed in its original publication here, and is presented in modernized notation in volume III/2.2 of the authoritative Neue Bach Ausgabe (NBA).

This Breitkopf edition served as the basis for the Riemenschneider edition of Bach chorales, often referred to simply as “the 371”. (The discrepancy between 370 and 371 can be explained by the fact that two chorales in the Breitkopf, the final chorale in Volume 3 and the first chorale in Volume 4, received the same number, 283.) Riemenchneider, for reasons unknown to me, rearranged a few of the chorales as they appeared in the Breitkopf (as shown in the sortable table of chorales here), and, for all its faults as an edition (don’t get me started!), also made corrections based on the original Bach manuscripts.]

What is important to remember about the Breitkopf edition published in the 1780s is that the individual chorales BWV 253-438 have survived by way of this collection (although about a fourth of these chorales also appeared in the important Dietel collection from around 1735, a collection to be discussed more later). That’s important for this reason: while any editorial revisions done during the preparation of the Breitkopf edition can be checked against the original manuscripts of Bach’s larger choral works (the cantatas, passions, motets, etc. – i.e. BWV 1-252 works), they cannot be checked against BWV 253-438 chorales since there are no original manuscripts.

So why is this fact important? It all relates to my discovery. I discovered that a number of the parallel fifths that occur in chorales for which we have original manuscripts were “corrected” (presumably) by the Breitkopf editors! By today’s standards, an editor taking such liberties would be unthinkable. But the late 18th century was a different world. And we should remember that C.P.E. Bach took considerable measures to ensure that his father’s legacy was bolstered as much as possible, even if that required exaggeration, as is demonstrated in the great composer’s famous obituary (Nekrolog) written by C.P.E. and, ironically enough, Agricola.

List of “Corrections”

Below is the list of 20 instances of consecutive fifths or octaves as taken from my previous post, this time with Breitkopf (B) numbers included and a brief description of the kinds of consecutives involved. Highlighted are the ones we are concerned about – that is, chorales which 1) are in the Breitkopf and 2) come from larger works for which we have original manuscripts. (Decimals represent movements of larger works. “R” numbers refer to the chorales’ position in the Riemenschneider edition.)

7.7 (RX, BX), measure 2/6.1 – (Consecutive fifths in contr. motion in B. and T.)
22.5 (RX, BX) measure m.27-28 – (Consecutive octaves in contr. motion in B. and T.)
26.6 (R48, B48) measure 4.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
33.6 (R13, B13) measure 14 – not corrected (Consecutive fifths in contr. motion in S. and T.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 2.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 4.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 6.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 16.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
48.7 (R266, B266) measure 14.2 – CORRECTED (Parallel fifths in A. and T. involving a p.t.)
86.6 (R4, B4) measure 13-14 – not corrected (Chordal parallel fifths in S. (Re-La descent) and T. (Sol-Re descent))
99.6 (RX, BX) measure 11 – (Parallel fifths in S. and A. created by lower n.t.)
146.8, (RX, BX) measure 10.3 (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
167.5 (RX, BX) measure 11/25-12/26 – (Parallel octaves(!) in T. and B.)
244.40 (R121, B121) measure 4.3 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
248.33 (R139, B139) measure 2.2 – CORRECTED (Parallel fifths in S. and A. involving p.t.)
251 (R329, B328) measure 14.1 – not corrected (Consecutive octaves in contr. motion in S. and T.; S. involves voice-crossing w/ A.)
263 (R128, B128) measure 6.2 (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
308 (R27, B27) measure 9 – (Consecutive fifths in contr. motion in T. and B.)
323 (R320, B320) measure 8 – (Chordal parallel fifths in S. and T.)
361 (R264, B264) measure 12.2 (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)

Eight of the eleven highlighted instances of consecutive fifths or octaves were “corrected” in one way or another. The specific ways in which each instance is corrected is shown below. But first, let’s examine the implications of this a little bit.

Observations and Implications

Given the fact that nearly three-fourths of the consecutive fifths and octaves appearing in these chorales were corrected, it would be only logical to assume that other instances among the BWV 253-438 chorales, for which we have no original manuscripts, were also corrected. Furthermore, the fact that 16 instances of consecutives appear in the roughly 225 chorales from BWV 1-252 while only four appear in the 186 chorales from BWV 253-438 leads one to suspect that many more instances were “corrected.” (The disproportionate number of corrections among the BWV 253-438 may have other explanations that would take far too long to get into here. If you really want to know about these possible explanations, ask me. Suffice it to say that I am sympathetic to the theory that many of the BWV 253-438 chorales came from a compilation of chorales Bach owned rather than coming from larger choral works (e.g. cantatas) that are now lost.)

Other questions emerged in my mind from this discovery:

  • Are there patterns in the ways in which consecutives are corrected by Breitkopf editors that can be applied to BWV 253-438 chorales in the opposite direction? I’m guessing that our sample size is a bit too small for this.
  • Though impossible to know, were the five chorales from extant cantatas listed above that do not appear in the Breitkopf (BWVs 7.7, 22.5, 99.6, 146.8, and 167.5) excluded from the collection because they contained consecutives? My guess is probably not, for a couple reasons. First, with the exception of the parallel octaves in BWV 167.5, the kinds of consecutives appearing in these chorales are no more egregious than those that were corrected and even no more egregious than those that were left uncorrected. Second, the fact is that more than sixty chorales were left out of the Breitkopf. There is little reason to think these five are exceptional.
  • Is it possible that these “corrections” were made by J.S. Bach himself at some point later in life? I doubt this is the case as well. First, such an idea would suggest that these instances of parallels were “mistakes” that needed correcting, something that I cannot bring myself to believe, for a variety of reasons. Second, given the fact that C.P.E. Bach was so willing to take measures to enhance Bach’s legacy, reasonable suspicion falls on him.

The Corrections

26.6 (R48, B48) measure 4.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 2.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 4.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 6.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
40.8 (R8, B8) measure 16.2 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
48.7 (R266, B266) measure 14.2 – CORRECTED (Parallel fifths in A. and T. involving a p.t.)

244.40 (R121, B121) measure 4.3 – CORRECTED (Re-Do anticipation over Sol-Fa motion in S. and T. at a PAC.)
248.33 (R139, B139) measure 2.2 – CORRECTED (Parallel fifths in S. and A. involving p.t.)

Six of the eight corrections involve what I called “cadential consecutives” in my original post. These are created by the simultaneous appearance of a Re-Do anticipation in the soprano over a delayed arrival of the seventh of a V7 (Sol-Fa) in an inner voice at an authentic cadence, by far the most common type of mid-phrase consecutives in Bach’s chorales. In one case, BWV 26.6 (Example 1), the Breitkopf editor staggers the parallel fifths by delaying the tenor’s Sol-Fa passing motion by a sixteenth – a miniscule revision, but a “correction” nonetheless. In one instance (m.2) from BWV 40.8 (Example 2), the editor removes the soprano’s Re-Do anticipation altogether and in the three other instances in this setting staggers the parallels by delaying the soprano’s Re-Do anticipation figure. Finally, in BWV 244.40 (Example 3), the editor removes the tenor’s Sol-Fa passing motion altogether.

EXAMPLE 1 (BWV 26.6, B/R 48)


EXAMPLE 2 (BWV 40.8, B/R 8)


EXAMPLE 3 (BWV 244.40, B/R 121)


The other two “corrections” occur in BWV 48.7 (Example 4) and BWV 248.33 (Example 5). In the former case, the alto part is simply rewritten: Bb-A is replaced with an A-G suspension figure. As a result, the parallel tenths between alto and bass (which I highlighted in my original post) is interrupted. The parallel ninths that are created by the editor’s alteration stand out from among the string of tenths as a kind of obstruction, partly due to the weak-to-strong repetition of the G into beat 2. More than the others, this example demonstrates well how, for Bach, a strong musical idea can override contrapuntal “correctness.”

EXAMPLE 4 (BWV 48.7, B/R 266)


In BWV 248.33, an editor has changed the alto’s E to F#, thereby eliminating the parallel fifths with the soprano. Harmonically, the F# works fine, converting a root position A minor chord (ii in the beginning key of G) into a first inversion F# diminished (viio6). And the alto’s F#-F chromatic descent might be thought to match that of the bass (A-Ab). Still, taken as an entire phrase, the alto’s F# impedes significantly on its directed upward motion – the line D-F#-F-G is certainly less compelling than D-E-F-G. For this and other reasons that are well stated by Fitsioris and Conklin (see pp.7-8), the parallel fifths Bach has written here offend not the ear and therefore need no correcting.

EXAMPLE 5 (BWV 248.33, B/R 139)


A Note on the Riemenschneider Edition

The reason these “corrections” eluded my attention until now is because these “corrections” have been eliminated (corrected the “corrections”!) in the Riemenschneider edition and in subsequent editions of the Breitkopf. So while the Riemenschneider edition is based on the original Breitkopf collection in terms of its organization, it does not duplicate its editorial revisions. (In his edition’s appendix, Riemenschneider discusses some of these updates.)

However, Riemenschneider could obviously only check the Breitkopf settings against the original manuscripts for those chorales which have survived in the original manuscripts. That excludes 185 chorales, nearly half of the entire collection. (And unfortunately, due to the frustratingly random organization of the Riemenschneider, one has no way of knowing which chorales are among these 185 chorales without searching the commentary in the appendix. Ugh.)

More Research: The Dietel Collection

In the brief description of the background of the Breitkopf edition given above, mention was made to the collection of 149 chorales created around the year 1735 by Ludwig Dietel, a student at the Thomasschule during Bach’s time in Leipzig. Scholars are fairly certain that Dietel copied these chorales directly from the original manuscripts of larger works. The importance of the Dietel Collection lies in this fact as well as in its early date – it predates the Breitkopf by 50 years! The unfortunate fact about the collection is that Dietel was not terribly accurate as a copyist, which resulted in numerous errors.

Despite these errors, one could easily argue that the Dietel Collection deserves priority over the Breitkopf A) given that the level of certainty that Dietel copied these directly from original manuscripts, and B) given that C. P. E. Bach took such editorial liberties with the settings. Because of this, a next logical step in this research project would be to compare the approximately fifty chorales from BWV 253-438 that appear in the Dietel with their appearance in the Breitkopf.

[11/5 Update:] I have found five instances of parallel fifths in the Dietel that have (presumably) been corrected by C.P.E. Bach:

Dietel Nr. 7 = Breitkopf Nr. 252 (R252) = BWV 362, measure 5/13, beats 2-3: the alto’s A-Bb has been changed to A-G in order to prevent parallel fifths with the tenor.

Dietel Nr. 23 = Breitkopf Nr. 274 (R274) = BWV 397, measure 18, beat 4: “Cadential parallels” are staggered rhythmically by delaying the tenor a sixteenth, in a manner precisely like several of the “corrected” cadential parallels mentioned above.

Dietel Nr. 57 = Breitkopf Nr. 275 (R275) = BWV 393, measure 5, beats 1-2 : the tenor’s downbeat A-B has been changed to C#-B to prevent parallel octaves with the soprano.

Dietel Nr. 104 = Breitkopf Nr. 349 (R350) = BWV 360, measure 12, beat 2: “Cadential parallels” are staggered rhythmically by delaying the soprano a sixteenth.

Dietel Nr. 109 = Breitkopf Nr. 36 (R36) = BWV 385, measure 6, beats 2-3: The bass’s running eighths have been changed from A3-G3-C#4-E#3 to A3-G3-F#3-E#3 to prevent loosely disguised parallel fifths with the tenor’s E-G# quarters.

A Final Note

After writing everything up to this point, a friend of mine came across a citation to a 1983 article by Gerd Wachowski entitled “Die vierstimmigen Choräle Johann Sebastian Bachs: Untersuchungen zu den Druckausgaben von 1765 bis 1932 und zur Frage der Authentizität” (“The Four-Voice Chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach: Studies on the Published Editions from 1765 to 1932 and the Question of Authenticity”) (Bach-Jahrbuch, 69 (1983), pp.51-79). In that article, Wachowski discusses some of the same Breitkopf editorial practices I discuss here. He points to a couple of very specific musical characteristics that frequently appear in the BWV 253-438 isolated chorales that do not frequently appear in chorales from BWV 1-248 works as evidence of editorial liberties. Included in his essay are the corrected “cadential fifths” I refer to above, though not to the corrected BWV 48 parallels, nor to the Dietel comparative research. He also gives a very thorough account of the nearly two dozen duplicate chorales appearing in the Breitkopf (duplicates which were also included in the Riemenschneider) as well as his own final commentary on the authenticity of the BWV 253-438 individual chorales.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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