2018 February 18: Tocattas in Dm

February 18, 2018 14:03

Toccata in Dm ("Dorian")      J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

"Ah, Holy Jesus"

Improvisation

J.S. Bach’s arguably most infamous piece is his "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" — well known from Disney’s Fantasia, Captain Nemo plays it in Disney’s version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and it appears in too many horror movies in which the arch-villian/mad-scientist/senior-vampire/mad-captain plays it on his resident pipe organ in his castle/laboratory/nefarious submarine/evil-lair of choice.

Lately the question has arisen in Bach-scholarship-land whether Bach even wrote this piece in the first place. Analysis of the piece frequently begins with the observation that it may well have been originally written for solo violin, and later arranged for the organ (and the original solo violin version is lost). This is plausible for several reasons: Bach began his musical career as a violinist — not keyboard player or composer. That’s how he earned his board and tuition for high school (when there were no public high schools, and Bach was an orphan with no financial resources). And other compositions by him for violin exhibit a virtuoso knowledge of that instrument’s idiosyncracies/capabilities. And other pieces by Bach have survived in which we have both the original violin version and his organ arrangement. And the "Toccata and Fugue in Dm" uses many distinctively violin idioms.

One of the arguments against Bach’s authorship of this piece is that it begins with both hands playing in octaves. I can’t think of anywhere else this occurs in his other surviving organ works, but there is also no lack of examples in other musical contexts in which Bach has all parts playing in octaves/unisons. And if you’re transcribing a dramatic opening gesture from solo violin to keyboard, having it played by both hands in octaves is rather obvious.

The thing is, if someone besides Bach wrote this piece, I’d want to know what OTHER marvelous music they may have written: Ha ha, what’s greater than ONE Bach? Answer: ANOTHER one! ANOTHER composer capable of the incredible imagination of the "Toccata and Fugue in Dm" would be nothing but good news to me!

One proposed ’true composer’ of the "Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ is Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772), an acquaintance and possibly student of J.S. A marvelous website now exists (http://imslp.org) in which scores of the complete works of almost any ’classical’ composer of any note, and whatever can be had of others is available for free download. (Composers sufficiently modern to run afoul of copyright laws are ill-represented — essentially anyone after 1900.) So I was able to check out the couple dozen or so available pieces by Mr. Kellner. As adequate as they are, not one exhibited any hint of the wild imagination and exuberant skill of our Toccata in question.

If you’re not sure which piece is the "Toccata in D minor" to which I’m referring, fear not – I’ll make its opening gesture the basis of my improvisation for the postlude – you’ll recognize it immediately. Meanwhile, because this piece is so overwhelming associated with ’horror’ movies and the like, I don’t think it’s appropriate for Sunday worship. So I thought I’d play Bach’s OTHER ’Toccata in D minor’ instead for the prelude (the so-called "Dorian"). It displays more than enough of "Lutheran severity" for Lent One. After all, Presbyterians have a history of plenty of "severity" of their own!

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