January 2010

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565

by Johann Sebastian Bach

I talked about Bach (pronounced BAHK) last January, when I introduced you to the "Little" Fugue in G Minor. Bach was born in Germany in 1685, and stands as my most revered of all composers. This won't be the last piece you'll hear by him.

Funny enough, though, when most people think "Bach", they think of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor". Hands down, this is the most recognized Bach piece there is. There's good reason for this. It's a phenomenal piece, and quite ahead of its time. It was written sometime between 1703 and 1707. In fact, some scholars consider it so ahead of its time that they suspect Bach was not actually the one who wrote it. It's my opinion that he did, and that he's just that innovative.

As the name indicates, there are two parts to this piece: a "toccata" and a "fugue". A toccata (ta-KAH-ta) is, essentially, a piece of music written to show off the skill of the performer. It's a show piece. It's a piece that an organist would use to boast his or her own skill. A fugue is something that we talked about last year. It's a piece that starts with one melody that repeats a little later (usually in a different key). The piece is in D minor. The fact that it's in a minor key usually means that it has a sad feeling to it. To me, this piece has some sadness, but is mostly angry.

I can actually play parts of this piece, though I'm not nearly skilled enough to play the whole thing. Perhaps one day I will.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

This is a very popular piece. When I started listening to it intently, I'd already heard it before, but I couldn't tell you where. I was probably about 12 when I really started listening to it. Once again, my parents' record collection came to the rescue. I'm not sure who was performing the piece, but it was a pipe organ, and it was on the Archive label.

This was a time where I started listening to a lot of Bach, but typically, this was in the form of Switched-On Bach (Walter Carlos). But none of the Switched-On albums that we had contained Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Thus, I sought out the pipe organ recording. I can remember spending a lot of time listening to it. It's really an engaging piece.

When I got a little older (Junior High), one of my band directors, Jerry Borchardt, introduced me to the Canadian Brass, and I enjoyed a tape he had made in which they played Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (arranged for brass quintet). In High School, Jerry Borchardt would also introduce me to one of my more favorite arrangements of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the album "Bachbusters" (look for that in the Extra Credit section).

While in High School, I purchased the organ score for Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and I made some attempts to learn it. The problem is, pieces written for organ typically need to be played on an organ. A piano doesn't always work, and in this case, it didn't really work much at all. Because I didn't really have regular access to an organ, I've pretty much limited myself to a few of the sections that I could play on a piano.


So, here it is. This recording is 8 minutes 35 seconds long. The first 2-1/2 to 3 minutes is the Toccata. The rest is the Fugue. Enjoy!

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach (8:35)

For those interested, this recording features Michael Murray at the pipe organ. It was taken from an album called "Bach Organ Blaster".

Jon's Interpretation:

My love affair with this piece started relatively late, compared to others. Still, though, it runs deep. This is a powerful, powerful piece that has a tendency to transport the listener to another world.

Of all the show-off portions in the Toccata, my favorite is a segment in which the right hand is playing a seemingly simple melody, while the left hand is playing the same note (A) on the off-beat throughout. It's a neat effect. And I love the Fugue. Sadly, you can't really sing the Fugue (not easily), but it is a memorable theme. And finally, the closing chords are awesome.

This piece, particularly the first few notes, are used in tons of places throughout modern media. Some examples include the old Boris Karloff horror films of the first half of the 20th century, and the opening music to Donkey Kong Jr. (arcade game of the early 1980s). Many were probably introduced to it in 1940 with the Disney movie Fantasia, which we talked about in October 2009. The first classical piece performed in the movie was an orchestral arrangement of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The arrangement was created and conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

Extra Credit:

For those interested, I actually found a copy of the organ score. For those who want to follow along, enjoy:

Sheet Music to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

As I mentioned, I was introduced to an arrangement for brass quintet performed by the Canadian Brass. Here it is:

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by The Canadian Brass Quintet (8:23)

Here is the clip from Fantasia (9:40). Don't let the intro fool you. When the fugue starts, the film becomes "animated":

And finally, here is the arrangement/performance by Don Dorsey on his album "Bachbusters". This is a similar arrangement to something Walter Carlos would have done, but it uses much more modern synthesizers. The ending chords are particularly marvelous. Notice that there are separate tracks for the Toccata and the Fugue. Enjoy!

Toccata from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Don Dorsey (3:08)
Fugue from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Don Dorsey (5:50)