Toccata & Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata & Fugue in D minor


Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Johann Sebastian Bach's most famous organ piece is notable for its rhythmic drive as well for as its arresting opening motif. Considered the epitome of scary organ music by the many who associate it with melodramatic silent-film scenes, it has been transcribed in various ways. Through much of the twentieth century it was often heard in an orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski. The romanticized, roaring registration often used in organ performances is still effective, although interpretations aiming for historical accuracy tend to give the work a lighter touch. It is difficult to establish a chronology of Bach's organ works, for most of their autograph manuscripts (except for those from the end of his career) have been lost. Works such as this one have come down to us only in copies made by his students. In the absence of clues provided by the composer's handwriting, the paper he wrote on, inscriptions that appear on the manuscript, and so forth, scholars have tried to guess the date of this work based on stylistic considerations. Because of its most salient structural aspect -- the interpenetration of the toccata material and the contrapuntal fugue -- the work has been assigned to the beginning of Bach's career, before his 1708 move to Weimar. It is perhaps the very earliest among Bach's well-known masterpieces. The alternation of quasi-improvisatory and contrapuntal sections was characteristic of the works of the north German organist Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach walked some two hundred miles to hear in 1704, taking a leave of absence from his post as organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. By fully realizing the dramatic potential inherent in this technique, Bach created a timeless work.