Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Toccata (Italian for touched) is a piece of classical music for a keyboard instrument, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer. Less frequently, the name is applied to works for multiple instruments (the opening of Claudio Monteverdi's opera Orfeo being a notable example).
The form first appeared in the late Renaissance period. It originated in northern Italy. Several publications of the 1590s include toccatas, by composers such as Girolamo Diruta, Adriano Banchieri, Claudio Merulo, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and others. These are keyboard compositions in which one hand, and then the other, performs virtuosic runs and brilliant cascading passages against a chordal accompaniment in the other hand. Among the composers working in Venice at this time was the young Hans Leo Hassler, who studied with the Gabrielis; he brought the form back with him to Germany. It was in Germany where it underwent its highest development, culminating in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach more than a hundred years later.
The Baroque toccata, beginning with Girolamo Frescobaldi, is more sectional and increases in length, intensity and virtuosity from the Renaissance version, reaching heights of extravagance equivalent to the overwhelming detail seen in the architecture of the period. Often it features rapid runs and arpeggios alternating with chordal or fugal parts. Sometimes there is a lack of regular tempo, and almost always an improvisational feel.
Bach's toccatas are among the most famous examples of the form. His toccatas for organ are brilliant improvisatory compositions, and are often followed by an independent fugue movement. In such cases the toccata is used in place of the usually more stable prelude. His toccatas for harpsichord are multi-sectional works which include fugal writing as part of their structure.
Beyond the Baroque period, toccatas are found less frequently, so that Robert Browning used the motif of a toccata of Baldassare Galuppi to evoke thoughts of human transience (see link). There are a few notable examples, however: Robert Schumann and Prokofiev each wrote a toccata for solo piano, as did Maurice Ravel as part of Le Tombeau de Couperin. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji wrote several toccatas for solo piano. The toccata form was of great importance in the French romantic organ school, something which Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens laid the foundation of with his Fanfare. Toccatas in this style usually consist of rapid chord progressions combined with a powerful tune (often played in the pedal). The most famous examples are the ending movement of Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No. 5, and the Finale of Louis Vierne's Symphony No. 1.
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