“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565,” was crafted by Johann Sebastian Bach as a two-part composition for the organ. The date of creation is debated, with the actual period speculated to be before 1708. Similar to most of Bach’s organ works, there are no autographed manuscripts of BWV 565. The only source remaining is an undated copy crafted by “Johannes Ringk,” a student of the famous composer Johann Peter Kellner.
Johannes Ringk's manuscript copy of Toccata 565 beginning
The composition is widely accredited for its propelling rhythm, dramatic authority, and majestic notes, and rose to prominence when it appeared in “Fantasia,” a Disney cult classic. It was adapted by Leopold Stokowski for orchestra and was utilized in the opening sequence of the film. The piece was first published by Felix Mendelssohn in 1883 and went on to become one of the most celebrated creations in the organ repertoire. However, since 1970, a number of scholars have challenged the attribution to Johann Sebastian Bach, which remains debatable.
The “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565” follows a simplified structure, typical to north German pieces - comprising of a free “opening section,” a “fugal section,” and culminating in a short free “closing section.”
The first section of the composition is a “toccata,” derived from the Italian word “tocacare,” which reads - “to touch.” It refers and represents a musical form that is crafted for keyboard instruments and is pre-designed to uncover the performer’s virtuosity - “touch.” Johann Sebastian’s take offers a typical essence, and is enriched with several fast “arpeggios,” - notes of the chord that is played in a series, not simultaneously. These notes are generally in a free form and provide the composer with more creative freedom. Toccata generally serves as an introductory foil to fugues, setting the stage for an intricate arrangement.
In the second section, “the fugue” is characterized by overlapping repetition of the primary theme, albeit in distinct melodies. This second section reflects the popularity of this piece in the late 17th century and early 18th century. Bach utilized the fugue multiple times in his works, mostly in solo organs, choral cantatas, and other instrumental works. The fugue in BWV 565 is not only Bach’s most celebrated fugue, but also the best-known fugue by composers and musicians.
The innumerable recitative stretches found in the composition are uncommon among the northern composers and is speculated as an influence of “Johann Heinrich Buttstett,” whose works exhibited strikingly similar features. One passage in the fugue section is identical to “D minor fantasias” of Johann Pachelbel. This can be attributed to the fact that crafting fugues based on other composers’ themes was a predominant practice back then.
The Toccata starts in the upper ranges of the keyboard, predominantly with a single voice, which is subsequently doubled at the octave. It is then marked with the appearance of a diminished seventh chord, which is crafted “one note at a time.” This portion resolves into “D major.” It is further followed by three short passages, which are doubled at the octave and reiterates a short motif. The section reaches its climax by resolving into “D minor,” albeit with a flourish. The second section comprises of multiple figurations offering minimal connections, subsequently switching into “A minor,” the dominant key. The final section consists entirely of reiterations of the “three-figure note,” with profound similarity to the opening section. The piece concludes with “D minor,” which follows a short pedal flourish.
The fugue constitutes of sixteenth notes, with a pedal point set up against a brief melody that falls and rises, consecutively. This type of violinistic figure is a signature of Bach and Baroque music, both through a subjective and non-imitative viewpoint. Its charm lies in the subdominant key, rather than the dominant one is most traditional compositions. Although it is a four-part fugue, the composer utilizes only three voices in the majority of its sections, with some interludes containing only two voices, or even one. Although the fugue employs a triadic harmony throughout, there is a sudden entry of “C minor,” along with a solo “pedal statement,” - unique signatures of the Baroque era.
As the final subject enters, the composition immediately resolves into a “B major” which is sustained thereafter, followed by a multi-sectional “coda.”
Usage in Popular Culture
- In 1931, it was used in the opening credits of the movie “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
- In 1940, Disney used the piece in the movie” Fantasia.” The Disney animators had to cope with an abstract theme to develop the image of this composition.
- In 1960, the track featured in the timeless classic “La Dolce Vita” by Federico Fellini.
- In 1962, the piece was used in the cinematic adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” by Hammer Productions. This feat elevated its popularity to the next level, and it became more associated with the popular culture, especially in the horror genre.
- In 1970, the composition was covered by “Egg,” the progressive rock band in their debut album.
- In 1973, the piece was used in the album “Trinity” by the Dutch symphonic/progressive rock band “Ekseption.”
- In 1975, an arrangement of the piece was featured in “Bach Bone,” the self-titled album of the R&B/jazz group “Brass Fever.”
- Also, in 1975, the track featured in the opening credits of the movie “Rollerball” and also made it to the background score of the closing freeze-frame.
- In 1978, a rearrangement of the composition was used in the album “Phantom of the Opera” by Walter Murphy. The rendition was titled “Toccata and Funk in D minor.” The score also features heavily in other samples of the album.
- In 1980, “Sky,” the British rock/classical fusion band crafted a rearrangement of the toccata section which became a “Top 10 pop hit.” The version also got a place in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
- In 1982, a version of the composition titled “Bach onto this” appeared on Jon Lord’s album “Before I Forget.”
- A cover by Vanessa Mae also achieved the 24th place on the Billboard chart.
- This composition is also performed by “Captain Nemo,” the legendary protagonist in the cinematic adaptation of the classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
The intended registration of this composition is not entirely specified, which was a common practice in the German musical scene in the 17th century. Also, the choice of the performers varied from the simple “organo pleno,” to the extremely complex “quintadena stop” and “glockenspiel stop.”
The opening sequence drew applause from Schumann, who particularly admired Johann Sebastian’s sense of humor. Today, it is viewed as a dramatic and bold piece - the opening bars descending like lightning, the broken chords resembling long rolls of thunder, with the triplets offering a stormy undulation. The continuous ascending and descending masses of chords create a palpable impact, subsequently abating to implement a pinch of balance through the fugue. The dramatic finale reprises the initial Toccata at the end, accompanied by flying scales and relative sonority.
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