J.S. Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Toccata and Fugue in D minor – Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750) is conceivably the most recognizable name in music. He was born in Germany to a large family of accomplished musicians, so it was no surprise when he showed early signs of musical genius. From the beginning and throughout his entire career, Bach wanted nothing more than to compose and perform in the realm of the church. His hundreds of choir cantatas and organ chorale preludes prove that he did just that, and along with this, he earned numerous jobs in churches and courts with his skilled organ playing. His “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” is among his most celebrated and well-known organ works

Bach lived during the musical period now classified as Baroque. Much of the instrumental music composed in this time was “absolute,” meaning that the form, or structure, of the music was more important than painting a picture for the audience. However, many scholars agree that this piece evokes images of a terrible storm. The quick, downward motion of the first three runs can be seen as strikes of lightning, and the following turbulent chord that begins in the pedals and comes up through the keys is reminiscent of clashing thunder. The toccata ends with a brief pedal solo with full, dark chords that bring this section to a haunting conclusion.

However storm-like it may be, form is still the focus of this work. The toccata is thought of as semi-improvisatory in style, meaning that it is written with ornaments and tempo changes to sound like the performer is making it up on the spot; on the other hand, the fugue follows strict rules. The fugue, which literally means “flight,” is more complex than the toccata. The main theme, or subject, is all by itself in strict tempo at the beginning, and then the same subject is imitated by another hand (or with the pedals), often in a different key but in the same rhythmic pattern while the first voice continues to develop its own melody. These rules are standard to the majority of toccatas and fugues written by Bach and other composers.

After this subject has been well established, the piece goes into a section of call and response. Since organs have multiple keyboards, or manuals, they can be pre-registered (like a synthesizer) to create different sounds. After the first passage is played, the performer switches to a different manual and plays the same thing with a contrasting sound. In this interpretation of the piece’s call and response sections, the initial melody is louder, and the response is softer, like an echo.

The closing portion of the fugue is actually more like the toccata in its structure. In the score, it is labeled “recitativo” (Italian for “recitative”), which is a term used in opera to describe how the vocals imitate speech patterns. Frequent tempo changes return, and passages of runs and chords allude to the toccata for unification; slow and clashing chords are drawn out until they settle on the title D minor chord and thus end the storm.

Bach allegedly never had a good organ on which to play and compose in his time. Therefore, the astounding virtuosity that is displayed in “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” and other writings is quite remarkable. Historians mark the end of the Baroque period with Bach’s death in 1750, paying homage to one of the most revered composers of all time.

Program Note by Emily Bruflat