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Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is the name of two different pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach: BWV 538 and BWV 565. While both are frequently recorded, number 565 is much more well known to the general public, so number 538 is frequently called the Dorian to distinguish them. The remainder of this article discusses BWV 565.
This piece is attributed (though not without controversy; see below) to Johann Sebastian Bach, and is one of the best known works in the organ repertoire. It has been dated to between 1703 and 1707, and would thus be one of Bach's early works.
The opening of the work is probably familiar to most people. In the musical score it looks like this:
One of the more exceptional features of this work (in the whole of Bach's production) is that the composer used the same musical (melodic) material for both the prelude section (in this case a toccata) and the fugue itself. In Bach's later years generally the preluding section would normally be unrelated to the ensuing fugue. Works with a similar prelude-fugue thematic connection are:
Considering these two most prominent examples of Bach boarding the theme with variations genre:
- They differ in the way that one (the Passacaglia) is an early work, while the other (the Goldberg Variations) is a very mature work, from the last years of his life. Also the latter is rather composed with a harpsichord in mind, the first undoubtably an organ work. Further, the Goldberg Variations exclusively use the (more sturdy) canon technique for every third variation, while the Passacaglia uses a more rhapsodic type of fugue as ultimate "variation".
- They concur in that for both of these works the "theme" is a slowly progressing bass line, while for the Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 the theme is a "lead" theme, and a very fast one.
Apart from these differences, the style of the Toccata and Fugue is closer to that of the Passacaglia than that of the Goldberg Variations, especially the (seemingly) rhapsodic character.
Influence of other composers
The source of that rhapsodic type of treatment that is apparent in Bach's earlier organ works is not so hard to find: Bach was a great admirer of Dietrich Buxtehude in his early years: in 1706 he even absented several months from his job in order to hear Buxtehude in Lübeck.
Buxtehude's organ works are characterised by an extreme application of (pseudo-)improvisation: when Buxtehude called a work "Prelude and Fugue", it might start with an odd bit of fugue, followed by some cadenza-like improvisation (possibly on another theme), yet followed by some more fugue or canon-like passages, some more virtuoso firework, etc... And Buxtehude loved fermatas, some serious pumping on the pedals, and other expressive techniques. Compared to this, despite the enormous influence of Buxtehude that is apparent in Bach's organ compositions, Bach establishes order and coherence in the patchwork-like idea Buxtehude seemed to have of a "prelude and fugue" or "toccata" type composition. In fact Bach, in his early organ works, synthesises this looser structure of an organ composition with what he had learnt from (amongst others) Johann Pachelbel's more organised approach (Bach was an indirect pupil of Pachelbel, through his brother Johann Christoph ).
In comparison to earlier work in the same genre, Bach's work appears more tighly constructed and less in the character of an improvisation.
The organ test hypothesis
The exceptional number (even for Bach) of fermatas and broken chords in the Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 has been explained by some (for example, Klaus Eidam ; see references below) on the supposition Bach composed it as a work to test an organ: the piece allows to test as well the velocity of the mechanics, as that the air supply installation must be without flaw.
The work is unquestionably a favorite of the listening public. This includes not just classical music enthusiasts, but also the many people who know the work only through its numerous appearances (see below) in popular culture.
Musical critics have also admired the work. For instance, it is described by (Uwe Kraemer ) as having "ecstatic technical virtuosity and [also] mastery of form" and by (Hans-Joachim Schulze ) as having "elemental and unbounded power ... that only with difficulty abates sufficiently to give place to the logic and balance of the Fugue".
In an influential paper ("BWV 565: a toccata in D minor for organ by J. S. Bach?", Early Music, vol. 10, July, 1981, pp. 330-337), Peter Williams argued that the work is not by Bach. In support of this view, he cites the following:
- There is no autograph score.
- The copyist who created the oldest known manuscript (Johann Ringk , 1717-1778) was a student-of-a-student of Bach, who had access to some of the Bach manuscripts and whose reputation is dubious: he is believed to have passed off inauthentic (as well as authentic) works under the composer's name.
- The work abounds in fermatas and dynamic markings, not ordinarily used in organ music in Bach's day.
- Lastly, Williams judges that various musical passages in the work are simply too crude musically to have been Bach's work.
William's views have more recently been endorsed in a book-length study by the musicologist Rolf Dietrich Claus, cited below.
Transcriptions for other instruments
This popular work has been transcribed many times. There are two types of transcriptions: these searching the original form of the work, and those primarily aiming at expanding the use of the work to new audiences: the violin transcriptions described below fall in the former category, all others mentioned here (which only are a few of the most notable examples) in the latter.
In the same article mentioned above, Peter Williams theorized that the Toccata and Fugue was not originally written for organ, but in fact is a transcription of a work for solo violin. Williams places this original violin work a fifth higher, in the key of A minor, so that the work begins dramatically on a high E and descends almost to the lowest note on the instrument:
Under this account, many aspects of the work fall into place.
- The fairly plain musical texture would reflect the general texture of Bach's well known solo sonatas and partitas for violin, which often convey a contrapuntal texture implicitly, rather than through double-stopping.
- Various passages echo a violin technique in which sixteenth notes (semiquavers) are played by alternating between strings--Williams's conjectured key of A minor places many of these notes on an open string, which would fit with other passages in Bach's solo violin works.
- The use of parallel octaves in the opening, otherwise unusual in Bach's music, would be a natural way to give greater weight to a solo violin line.
- The passage at m. 137 strongly suggests quadruple-stopped chords on a violin, along the following lines:
Williams put his theory into practice by writing a reconstruction of the conjectured original violin work, which has been performed (by violinist Jaap Schröder ) and published. The violinist Andrew Manze subsequently produced his own reconstruction, also in A minor, which he has performed widely and recorded.
The possibility that the Toccata and Fugue is a violin-to-organ transcription is supported by the fact that at least twice in his career, Bach is known to have transcribed solo violin works for organ. The Prelude first movement of the Partita in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006, was converted by Bach into the solo organ part of the opening movement of the Cantata BWV 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir. Bach also transcribed the Fugue movement of his Sonata in G minor for solo violin BWV 1001 as organ music, namely as the second half of the Prelude and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 539.
Around the end of the 19th century a "second wave" Bach revival occurred (the first having been the one launched earlier in the 19th century by Mendelssohn among others). In the second wave, much of Bach's instrumental music was adapted to resources that were available in salon settings (piano, chamber ensemble,...). The composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a leader of this movement, providing many piano transcriptions of Bach compositions, many of which radically altered the original version. Among them was a loud and virtuosic version of the Toccata and Fugue.
Another Bach-revival wave announced itself in the 20th century. For this wave, which was probably the first major Bach wave in the United States, Walt Disney was instrumental: Disney favoured classical music and after including pot-pourri bits of classical music in most of his animation film scores, he tried out a more in-depth approach with Dukas's Apprenti Sorcier, which led to the project he considered one of his most important endeavours ever: Fantasia.
This film opens with Leopold Stokowski's orchestral version (for a very extended orchestra) of the Toccata and Fugue, as an example of absolute music (i.e. where there is no extra-musical image built in to the music itself). Stokowski's rendering breathes a very romantic interpretation of Bach's music, making it into a showpiece of orchestral color, virtuosity, and sheer volume: at the time he had produced his transcription (1927) ideas about authentic performance were still more than half a century away, and nothing much had changed in that respect by the time Fantasia was released (1940).
Stokowski's version inspired other settings for large orchestra of Bach's music, particularly his organ compositions. Eugene Ormandy released an album of such works, reviving, together with some fresh arrangements, Elgar's Op. 86, a pre-Stokowski orchestration of the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor BWV 537, enriched with abundant harp strokes (Vinyl album reference: Bach: Orchestral Works, Philips Favourite Series - Minigroove 331/3 - S 04614 L).
In 1993 Salvatore Sciarrino made an arrangement for solo flute of BWV 565. This transcription was recorded in the early 21st century by Maria Caroli (released on Zig Zag Territoires: ZZT 040802). A review by Peter Grahame Woolf of this interpretation can be found here: http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/cddvd/SciarrinoBachCaroli.htm
The Toccata and Fugue in popular culture
Apart from the transcriptions mentioned above, the Toccata and Fugue was included in many samples of popular culture: the films Fantasia (see above), Rollerball, Sunset Boulevard, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the musical/film Phantom of the Opera, and the video game Gyruss. Further examples follow:
- a version recorded by Vanessa-Mae for her album The Violin Player (1994/1995). Vanessa Mae's version of the Toccata and Fugue also appeared in several Mix editions (D's journey mix, D's hiphouse mix, lectroluv mix...).
- "Imitation Situation" by Fever Tree (San Francisco Girls) (1967) opened with the fanfare of Toccata and Fugue
- The fourth chapter of Klaus Eidam's The True Life of J. S. Bach (English translation by Hoyt Rogers ISBN 0-465-01861-0) elaborates considerably on the Toccata and Fugue BWV 565. A review by Yo Tomita of that book can be found here.
- Peter Williams's article is available at the fee-charging Web site of Early Music; a summary appears at this link: , on the Web site of www.bachfaq.org.
- Rolf Dietrich Claus's researches on the authenticity of the work are reported in his book Zur Echtheit von Toccata und Fuge d-moll BWV 565 ("On the authenticity of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565"), published by Verlag Dohr, 2nd ed. Cologne 1998, ISBN 3925366377. A English-language review of Claus's work by Yo Tomita can be read at this link.
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