Music for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 13 2022

Toccata & fugue in D minor (BWV 565) – J. S. Bach


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One of Bach’s most famous works is without doubt Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, this morning’s postlude in church. Yet it was nearly counted as one of the many lost organ works by Bach save for a single manuscript by Johannes Ringk, probably as a copying exercise for his teacher, Johann Peter Kellner, who himself had studied with Bach. The composition lay dormant for decades and was rediscovered in the early nineteenth century during the Bach Revival Era, through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn — who himself performed the piece on August 6, 1840, in Leipzig.


The Toccata and Fugue is markedly different from the other compositions in Bach’s organ repertoire, which for many years has led musicologists to speculate about its authorship. Yet the consensus now is that it is an early composition from when Bach was still a teenager — perhaps as young as seventeen. This would account for the improvisational character of the piece, known as the “stylus phantasticus”, typical of organ works in North Germany in the seventeenth century: a free-style opening section, a fugal section, and concluding with free-style closing section.


From the opening iconic theme to the closing section, the work is filled with drama and propelling rhythm. Bach scholar Hans-Joachim Schulze captured its character well:


“Here is elemental and unbounded power, in impatiently ascending and descending runs and rolling masses of chords, that only with difficulty abates sufficiently to give place to the logic and balance of the fugue. With the reprise of the initial Toccata, the dramatic idea reaches its culmination amidst flying scales and with an ending of great sonority.”


PJ Janson