J.S. Bach - Canonical names of works

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There are inconsistencies in how J.S. Bach works are named.

Some of his works are named using collection titles, or descriptive words (type of work):
for example:
Choralvorspiel, BWV 614 “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist”

while others are using only the work title followed by the BWV reference:
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, BWV 734
(This is also an organ choral, exactly the same type of work)

This lead me to wonder what should be the naming rule for Bach works, which is typically difficult, as they have been named differently in different publications.

The authoritative source of J.S. Bach is usually considered the BWV catalog.
This lead me to consider that the “canonical” name of a work should be the name/title of the work in this catalog.
The naming of a J.S. Bach work would therefore be:
Title of the work in BWV catalog", BWV ### (number of the work in the catalog)

This naming would be in line with the second example, and a large number of names already given.

This approach raises the question of where to find this information from the BWV catalog.

There are a number of sources with copies of the catalog listing:

These different sources may have minor differences or errors, or include comments from editors of these sources.

This lead me to use what seems to be the most reliable and up to date source on J.S. Bach works: Bach Digital database.

This database is professionally curated and updated with the latest updates from research on J.S. Bach works. It provides an easy to use source for “canonical” information on J.S. Bach works.

My suggestion would be to use this as “golden source” for canonical names of J.S Bach.

Each entry in this database is consistently structured, with the “Uniform title” followed by the BWV reference. This seems to me as a good source for canonical names of J.S Bach works.
So my first approach would be corrected as follows:
The naming of a J.S. Bach work would therefore be:
Uniform title from Digital Bach database", BWV ### (number of the work in the BWV catalog)
in this example:
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (Orgelbüchlein), BWV 614

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I recall a similar discussion when I was trying to sort out the Goldberg Variations. A useful contribution in that case was


In other words, while important, the catalogue is only one consideration.
Unfortunately, the style guidelines don’t seem to say much about naming works (as opposed to track titles), but the general approach seems to be:
Generic name & number, catalogue number, non-generic name
Reviewing the entries for Bach, it seems to me that those which have received most attention have the structure:
Generic name, Catalogue number, non-generic name
(I.e. omitting the generic number even if there is one)
Also, the generic name is in German not English (Kantate not Cantata).
The source you quote is interesting, but is one of many (Wikipedia, for example) and they are all slightly different. Also it seems to be English-biased (e.g. “Christmas Oratorio”).
So my view would be not to remove the generic names, but to make them consistent and German.

EDIT: given the potential widespread impact of this issue, a comment by @reosarevok would be helpful.

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The abundant use of Aliases makes (or, too often, would make) having a uniform name less important.

Until such an abundant and happy day dawns I would appreciate having reliable Work names.
Searching through a long list of Works that have been named haphazardly is very unsatisfying.

A list of the costs and benefits of following along behind an extensive, highly focussed catalogue would be worth looking at.

For Bach, I personally like the second form mentioned in the original post (that is, “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, BWV 734”). But that’s just my personal preference. @ProfChris has edited and fixed tons of Bach in the past IIRC, maybe they have an opinion here :slight_smile:

In any case, I’d like us to be consistent if possible :slight_smile:

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I disagree with this approach, as this do not seem to comply with the guideline from Metabrainz documentation:

The canonical title of the work, expressed in the language it was originally written.

Providing several names to a single work, “generic” and “non-generic” do not seem appropriate, there should be a single title for a single work. It is also unclear what you call “generic” and “non-generic”.

Indeed the fact that some of these works have received different names in different publications makes defining a single canonical name for these works difficult.
The proper way to manage this diversity of naming is to use aliases.

However remains the task of defining what is the “canon” to ensure a consistent and proper naming of works.

My approach is to rely on the work of professional researchers who develop the “Bach Digital” database, which purpose is to define such a canon for Bach work.

The key difference is that Bach Digital is an official source, professionally managed, which in my point of view makes it more suitable as a “canon” source.

As it is a joint project from several German State libraries, it would be strange for it to have an English bias. All works are named in German. However an English translation is provided for some of them, which is displayed if you browse the site in the English version. You have two options to view the German name:

  1. View the site in a language which is not English (and disable browser automatic translation)
  2. View one of the raw data format provided for each work ([XML] [MEI] [JSON-LD]). The simplest being the [JSON-LD], where you can find easily the “Uniform title / text incipit” field which holds the work title in German.

The Goldberg Variations is an interesting example, as it is one of the few works published during Bach’s lifetime. It’s original title is also quite different from the common name under which this work is now known.
In this instance, the Bach Digital “Uniform Title” is:
Aria mit [30] verschiedenen Veränderungen (“Klavierübung [Teil 4]”; Goldberg-Variations)

This uniform name provide both the original title of the work, but also the common name.

I believe that we should rely on the works of the professional researchers who manage this Bach Digital database, they have obviously worked a lot to define a naming scheme for Bach works which is accurate and practical.

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Generic name is something like “Symphony No.3”, non-generic is “Eroica”
Most of the canonical works in MB include both in the title.

But the guideline does not say how the canonical title should be constructed - hence the problem.

Agree absolutely - and thanks for posting the topic!

Sorry - I was looking at it on my iPad late in the evening and didn’t spot this. On further exploration, on a decent PC, I can see that it is a very impressive source.

I don’t see any activity on the forum by @ProfChris since March 2018, but they have continued with many edits. Most recently St Mark’s Passion, e.g. Markus-Passion, BWV 247: Nr. 1 Chorus: Geh, Jesus, Geh Zu Deiner Pein
I also note that they have made edits to add the generic names, e.g. adding “Kantate” in https://musicbrainz.org/edit/43679633 in order to “bring title into same style as other Bach cantatas”
I would hate to see all this effort to introduce rigour and consistency undone by further edits without a general agreement as to a consistent overall approach.
A comment by @ProfChris would be most appreciated!

EDIT: BTW I see that the Bach Digital source includes type and date information in brackets - e.g.

Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd [1. Fassung] (Weltliche Kantate, vor dem 27. Februar 1713)

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I understand better, but it seems to me that what you call “generic name”, is actually the “Work Type”. Unfortunately the list of work type that may be specified in MusicBrainz is very limited. We should define how to best address this limitation.

Indeed, we all wish to have consistent and clear naming of works. However without proper guidelines this is not possible to achieve.

Indeed, Bach Digital adds in the name version information when it is required for disambiguation.
In your example, there are 3 versions of this Cantata, corresponding to different performance dates:

  1. [BWV 208.1] Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd [1. Fassung] (Weltliche Kantate, vor dem 27. Februar 1713)
  2. [BWV 208.2] Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd [2. Fassung] (Weltliche Kantate, vor dem 03. August 1742)
  3. [BWV 208.3] Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd [3. Fassung] (Weltliche Kantate)

So Bach Digital “Uniform Title” specifies what differentiate the versions, in this instance, the first two versions were made for specific performances.

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Could other readers please check that they haven’t accidentally flagged Algwyn’s second most recent post as troubled.

Indeed, it seems that links to Bach Digital are flagged as spam. It is not possible anymore to post links to this domain.

Maybe an erroneous automatic spam detection.

Bach Digital is not for profit, it seems funded by German public state libraries and sponsors. The database is published under Public Domain Dedication and License v1.0
So very strange to flag these links as spam.

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Indeed. I have unmarked all flags on you in the system and whitelisted the Bach Digital site.

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I’ve been taking an initial look at the large series of recent edits submitted by @Algwyn - many of which are to use the canonical names from the Bach Digital site. Many of them look consistent and logical and, in fact, include the generic name (although the issue with choral preludes etc. remains). One other issue that strikes me, however is the omission of ‘Dur’ or ‘Moll’ in the keys (instead capitalising or not). The MB English language guidelines say to include ‘major’ and ‘minor’ for works (although not necessarily for recordings), but there don’t seem to be any equivalent Gerrman-language guidelines.

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Indeed, I have wondered about this. I am French, so not fluent on the German/English notation systems.
There seems to be a subtle nuance between c and c-Moll in German notation, as illustrated in the German wikipedia which uses both:

Some more clue in this book “Writing about Music: A Style Sheet”, which shows that this notation may also be in use in English

p.6: The convention of uppercase Major and lowercase minor is correct only for some styles of chord notation, notably analysis and figured bass, where such abbreviations as GM (G major) and Gm (G minor), or even G and g, can be useful.

But more expert knowledge would be useful to clarify this point.

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I think that “c” in this extract just refers to the note C, not the key C-minor “C minor is a key of the minor key, which is based on the root of c.”

That’s a very useful reference and would be a good source to use in elaborating on the MB style guidelines :wink:. However, I think the context for the reference to the use of G and g is in chord notation, not the titles of works. We could do with a German equivalent of this, but I would take some persuading to drop the use of Moll and Dur. For example, @ProfChris (see this list of edits) clearly favours the use of upper and lower case combined with Moll and Dur - eg. “g-Moll” and “D-Dur” as he added the keys without changing those titles. Dropping “Moll” and “Dur” would lead to greater inconsistencies as well as being less clear.

When editing Bach works entries, I tried to ensure that the works would be easily found, and reliably linked to recordings. IMO the prime focus of MB is cataloguing recorded music, and the Works catalogue supports this prime focus rather than being an end in itself.
With the absence of work naming guidelines I followed the following structure Canonical name, Worktitle, Catalogue number, [Part number, Part title]. There may well be variations on this but that was the plan. IMO each of these elements is required to aid searching. IMO this is a logical structure and can be readily searched. I try to use the original language name, and tend to use the IMSLP BWV catalog for this. Catalogue Number is always the BWV number. If the Part includes a solo line e.g. a Soprano aria, I include that information as it helps assign soloists to recordings.
I would welcome a guideline to help with this.
My issues are:
a) Whether to include a key signature; it is rarely used as a search term, and is better included as a linked attribute;
b) Translated works; there are multiple translators for multiple languages of many of these works, and to include a different work for each translators translation (where known) may not be helpful; maybe a solution along the lines of one translation per language, linked to multiple translators is a viable solution;
c) Part Numbers; these vary between editions and are not a reliable search term; they are useful to establish Part/Movement order, but often recordings and linked work will have a different number;
d) Multiple catalogue numbers; I tend to only include the “main” catalogue number (BWV for JSB), but link to other catalogues as series, it may be better to include them as aliases.

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This is indeed quite a change compared to the common practice, I was myself quite surprised.
However, given how widespread is this practice of dropping “Moll” and “Dur” in Bach Digital entries, there must be a reason for them to have adopted this style.
If nobody here is able to find the reason, I may try to reach out to the Bach Digital team to ask them the reason (and maybe some further information on the rules that they have adopted to record Bach works in their database.

Regarding the other topic that you raised, on the usage of words like “Kantate”, “Chorale”, in works name, I understand the practice as follows:

  • These are actually “Work Type” qualifiers, which have been incorporated in the common name of works
  • Bach Digital has a dedicated field to record the work type, therefore it is not needed in the work title, which can therefore reproduce faithfully the original name given by the composer (or other naming rule when the work was not named by the composer). They seem to be using these words whenever the composer has actually used them in the name of the work. For example: Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet - Cantate en burlesque
  • MusicBrainz also has a “Work Type” field, however the list of possible values is limited and cannot be modified. This is not a regular “Relationship” from that regard. This means that we cannot reproduce the Bach Digital style, unless we manage to get the list of Work Type extended: @reosarevok, would it be possible to consider an extension of this list of Work Type in MusicBrainz? I guess that this has already been requested many times …

If we cannot extend the list of value of MB “Work Type” field, we need to agree on a workaround to record these “extended work types” in a consistent way. I see the following options:

  • Use an alias to record the work name with the work type added, following the common naming of the work. Most accurate, but it seems to be the most complex to implement
  • Record the work type in the “Disambiguation” field. It’s easy to implement, avoid modification of the “canonical” name, and keep the words in a field which is visible when works are searched
  • Record the work type in the name of the work, with a convention to indicate that it is not part of the canonical name (e.g. “[Kantate]” using square bracket to separate from regular part of the name) Here is an example that I have made to test this option: https://musicbrainz.org/work/1e051499-4b36-3e18-b396-f883162fc96c
  • Record the work type in tags, but clearly an inferior option
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I’m still not clear why this is “clearly inferior”. I presume you are happy with “Sonata”, so why not “Cantata” (or German equivalents)? Even Bach Digital does this. The distinction seems arbitrary to me. (and, in fact, both Sonata and Cantata are specified work types in MB).
An improvement in the “work type” field would be welcome, but I suspect that is for a different topic.

This has some attractions, although I’m not sure how searchable it is. In fact, I was thinking about adding a disambiguation tag to Classical Extras, which could either be separate or combined with a work tag (again, a separate discussion, but I would welcome views on this - at least it would allow a Picard user to show the information how they wish).

I have a bit of an aversion to introducing more conventions that require careful adherence to a specific format. The example you give actually has [Choralbearbeitung] in the disambiguation field, not in the main name, which results in it showing as ([Choralbearbeitung]) - not what you intended, I’m sure.

It looks inferior to me due to the way tags are displayed in MB user interface.
They are in the right column, not as visible as the Name, Type or Disambiguation fields. They are also inputed in a separate tab, which add one more step to the input of the data if you want to correct existing data.

What Bach Digital does is have a field dedicated to this information with a curated list of possible values, which is different in my option from MB tagging system which may be used for whatever purpose.

From my testing, if you type “Choralbearbeitung 599”, or “Choralbearbeitung Heiden” in MB search bar for Work, you will find the new test example that I have just added as the first result of the search.
This also works to add a relationship for the work.

Indeed not what I intended, the new example is better: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599

Whoops - misread your earlier post. Yes - I agree that work type in tags is inferior. I thought you meant work type as part of the name (i.e. as is the case currently with many of Bach’s works) and that is what my comment about Sonata and Cantata was addressing.

Different translators should (per guidelines and also for respect to the translators as creators) always be different works :slight_smile: If we have cases where they’re often unknown, we can have a “catch-all for unknown English translations” or whatnot though.

I believe that @ProfChris was referring to translation of works titles …
In that case, I believe that the proper approach is to add the translated names as aliases.