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"Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565"

Johann Sebastian Bach

This piece is one of the best known works in the organ repertoire. It was composed probably between 1703 and 1707, which would make this work one of Bach's earliest organ compositions.


As indicated by the accepted title of the piece, the Toccata and Fugue is scored in D minor. It is not in dorian mode as the key signature supposes, as it was common practice in the Baroque period to write in leading tone accidentals (B flat in the relative major) rather than in the key signature. It 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.


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.

The source of the rhapsodic treatment in Bach's earlier organ works is reminiscent of Dieterich Buxtehude, whom Bach greatly admired in his early years. In 1706 he even absented himself from his job in order to hear Buxtehude in Lubeck.

Buxtehude's organ works, like those of his contemporaries, are characterized by the presence of the stylus phantasticus, a performance style derived from improvisation. The stylus phantasticus included elements of excitement and bravura, with adventurous harmonies and sudden changes in registration. Buxtehude's free organ works made great use of these elements. These works generally began with a free section, followed by an imitative section (sometimes a full-blown fugue), then another free section, and then another imitative section (usually based on motivic material from the first imitative section), and finally another free section.
BWV 565 derives several of its stylistic elements from this earlier form of organ music, in particular the stylus phantasticus.

In the Fugue, the F major episode (an elaboration of the Fugue subject) is nearly identical to a passage in a Fantasia in D minor by Johann Pachelbel. The original passage by Pachelbel is the source for Subject of Bach's Fugue, and its use is possibly a homage to the older composer. As noted in J. S. Bach's obituary, it was common practice for Bach to use other composers' work as inspiration for his own. (The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582 first half of the Basso Ostinato are taken form Andre Raison's G minor Passacaglia for Organ, The F Major 2 part invention is theme is derived from a G minor Concerto theme by Vivaldi, and numerous Organ Fugues were written on a number of Italian Composers themes; the term "Bach the Borrower" was coined as a result).

The exceptional number of fermatas and broken chords in the Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 has been explained by some on the supposition that Bach composed it as a work to test an organ, which he did regularly. The first thing Bach is said to have done when testing an organ is to pull out all the stops and play in the fullest possible texture, in order to see if the organ had good bellows to provide plenty of wind to the instrument: not enough, and the pitch would be unsteady, and tone quality would be inferior. The opening of BWV 565, with its three opening flourishes and massive rolled chord, would serve as a good test for an organ's winding system.This piece was played by Bach when he performed on a new organ to test the various stops, and to determine whether the organ had enough "lungs" (air pumped from the bellows to the pipes) for this work to be played without running out of air.


recorded/sequenced on the Reuter opus #822 pipe organ, September 25, 2009

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