Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
This is the most famous piece of organ music ever written!
From the very first notes it demands your attention. But, was it really composed by Johann Sebastian Bach? Well, surely everybody knows it was because, after all, that’s how we came to know the piece.
However, a very small ‘however,’ one or two quarters have made remarks about this music that are interesting.
Bombastic, outlandish and downright outrageous?
Sweeping, catchy proverbs after sweeping, catchy proverbs?
And, would maestro Bach ever compose in such a style so different from all his other output?
Answering the first question, my thoughts are that it is extremely flamboyant, debonair and daring.
To answer the second question I would say that, at times I couldn’t bear to hear the piece. It sounds so like the music you would hear when you are put on ‘hold’ on a customer services call. Or even a piece of elevator music. One cannot escape the fact that it is, as the title implies, virtuosic.
And to answer the third question let me say that, all great composers have the ability to write in a wide variety of different styles — the wider the variety, the greater the genius. Whether the quieter nuances or the spicy fireworks, if one can compose without limits, one is unlimited — a master. It is my opinion that Bach probably wrote the Toccata before breakfast. A mere exercise a virtuoso could dash off to dazzle and impress anyone who happens to be within the church’s vicinity.
For this post I will be taking the first movement, the Toccata.
Not all recordings are equal.
I have been enthusiastic and passionate about music, particularly the ‘classical’ genre, for my entire adult life, and have come to realise that different recordings of a piece can vary, one to the other — and quite a bit, too.
The piece under the spotlight here was composed for church organ, probably before 1708. There are also arrangements for orchestra, solo violin and the piano. It has been said that the moment a piece of music is re-arranged from its original, it has been re-composed.
I see the piano as the musical instrument of my choice since 1990. An eminent guitarist said a few years ago, “Whilst stringed music is for the emotions, piano music is for the intellect”. So, join me on this particular musical excursion, on the piano, with Bach’s legendary Toccata.
In my CD library (yes, they do still exist) are four CDs that include recordings of the Toccata on the piano (see below). Over the years I have developed a musical palette whereby I can tell within the first few bars of a recording whether it will be satisfying and pleasurable. If only I had all the ultimate recordings then I could rest! I want all of them — now!
As you can see below, there are four different publications of the Bach piece in my library – all arranged for solo piano.
These publications, with the help of recordings to an extent, shows one how to play the notes. However, playing the music is an entirely different game – I love affair – making the notes leave the page and into the ears.
Music is to be enjoyed and not endured. Making music is not a mechanical process played by automatron robots, but a dance between musician and listener, between a man and a woman. The heart, the intellect and the spirit of a person are all at play. To me, it is all about communication – two-way communication.
Music is nostalgic — enjoying the past now. Music is predictive — drawing down from tomorrow and enjoying it now. Music is art.
And how does one translate two notes on a page to two notes on the airwaves? Answer: interpretation. What statements are you going to make? What phrasing are you going to articulate? Are there any emphasis you could bring to highlight a point or two? And what is the overall shape, the story you want to tell: the starting point, the endpoint, and the interim?
And so to my interpretation of the Toccata from Bach’s BWV 565…
Thirty-five years ago since I became aware of the work, I am now hearing it call out to me: “Rubato!” and, “More rubato!” And sometimes I never pay the stolen time back! As I have been familiar with the piece for such a long time, I am instilling more musicality into performances — which, of course, is inseparable from elements of my personality. And so, naturally, I have made recordings – just for fun.
The last recording I made brought with it a surprise. Up until that date I had always played the opening with the same notes. But, for the first time it dawned on me to play the same passage with extra notes. I tried it. And, it worked! With these new notes came a new interpretation on how they should sound. In short, there is a deliberate slowing down of the opening, together with increased volume dynamics, and becoming more emphatic as the music descends down the keyboard into the sonorous depths of D minor… And that’s just the opening!
Look out for another exaggerated detachment — this time two notes. And the music continues…
In this section I draw further on my feelings on how poetry should be performed. This is played out with more manipulation of the timings. When, as I tell the story, I repeat a particular chord sequence, the chord sequence anticipates, predicting that something different is about to happen — a new scene, as it were, is just around the corner. This predictive text is not written in the score but comes from my memory of an old recording on audio cassette tape played on a church organ…
Much more rubato and dramatic storytelling…!
My own review of my own performance? Stately. Pronounced. Flights into the ether? Faithful to the term ‘toccata’. Organistic.