Bach – Toccata & Fugue in D minor (Kurt Ison)
The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, is a piece of organ music believed to have been composed by Johann Sebastian Bach sometime between 1703 and 1707. It is one of the most famous works in the organ repertoire, and has been used in a variety of popular media ranging from film (1975’s Rollerball), to video games, to rock music, and ringtones. The attribution of the piece to Bach has been challenged since the 1980s by a number of scholars.
As with most Bach organ works, no autograph manuscript of BWV 565 survives. The only near-contemporary source is a copy by Johannes Ringk, which is undated. Ringk was a pupil of Johann Peter Kellner. No compositions by him survive, and he is notable today for his copies of numerous keyboard works by Georg Böhm, Johann Pachelbel, Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Dieterich Buxtehude, and other important masters. The title of the piece is given in Ringk’s manuscript as Toccata Con Fuga, which is rendered as Toccata and Fugue today. It is most probably a later addition, similar to the title of Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, because in the Baroque era such organ pieces would most commonly be called simply Prelude (Praeludium, etc.) or Prelude and Fugue. Ringk’s copy abounds in Italian tempo markings, fermatas (a characteristic feature of Ringk’s copies) and staccato dots, all very unusual for pre-1740 German music. These markings are also most probably additions by Ringk or another copyist. The piece also survives in several 19th-century copies, all of which originate directly or indirectly with Ringk’s manuscript.
BWV 565 exhibits a typical simplified north German structure with a free opening (Toccata), a fugal section (Fugue), and a short free closing section. The connection to the north German organ school was noted early by Bach biographer Philipp Spitta in 1873. However, the numerous recitative stretches are rarely found in the works of northern composers and may have been inspired by Johann Heinrich Buttstett, who’se few surviving free works, particularly Prelude and Capriccio in D minor, exhibit similar features. In addition, a passage from the fugue of BWV 565 (bars 36–37) closely resembles one of the sections from Johann Pachelbel’s Fantasia in D minor, Perreault 125. Pachelbel’s work also may have been the inspiration behind Bach’s fugue subject. It was common practice at the time to create fugues on other composers’ themes, and a number of such pieces by Bach are known (BWV 574, 579, 950, etc.); moreover, the bass pattern of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, is borrowed from André Raison’s organ passacaglia.
As indicated by the accepted title of the piece, the Toccata and Fugue is in D minor. The Toccata begins with a single-voice flourish in the upper ranges of the keyboard, doubled at the octave. It then spirals toward the bottom, where a diminished seventh chord appears, built one note at a time. This resolves into a D major chord, taken from the parallel major mode.
This is followed by three short passages, each reiterating a short motif, and each doubled at the octave. The section ends with a diminished seventh chord which resolved, through a flourish, into the tonic, D minor. The second section of the Toccata a number of loosely connected figurations and flourishes; the pedal switches to the dominant key, A minor. This section segues into the third and final section of the Toccata, which consists almost entirely of a passage doubled at the sixth and comprising reiterations of the same three-note figure, similar to doubled passages in the first section. After a brief pedal flourish, the piece ends with a D minor chord.
The subject of the four-voice fugue is made up entirely of sixteenth notes, with an implied pedal point set against a brief melodic subject that first falls, then rises. The second entry starts in the sub-dominant key rather than the dominant key. Although unusual for a Bach fugue, this is a real answer and is appropriate following a subject that progresses from V to I and then to V below I by a leap. A straightforward dominant answer would sound atonal and odd in a Baroque piece.
After the final entry of the fugal melody, the composition resolves to the key’s corresponding major, B-flat, that is held. From there, a coda is played as a cadenza much like the Toccata itself, resolving to a series of chords followed by arpeggios that progress to other paired chords, each a little lower than the one preceding, leading to the signature finale that is as recognizable as the Toccata’s introduction.
Performed by Kurt Ison, (organ and baritone) one of Australia’s leading organists (Sydney Town Hall).
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