I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Bachcast Episode 21: Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565


This piece may well be the most well-known pieces for organ by modern society, having appeared in films and often used to evoke a “scary” sentiment. The popularity of the work no doubt has something to do with the way it’s written, and not by chance, however many questions have arisen as to whom was the original author. Among the speculation is that it could be a transcription of a piece originally for a stringed instrument, such as a violin. The Wikipedia article I reference above does a good job at referencing this issue and more. In simple terms, the following may apply:

  • It was written by Bach, but is a youthful work;
  • It was an adaptation by Bach, of a piece written by Bach;
  • It is an adaptation by Bach, of a piece written by someone else;
  • It is an adaptation by someone else of a piece written by Bach;
  • It may have been incorrectly attributed by an organist as a piece by Bach, and that said attribution is false.

Despite the fact that the piece lacks so much of the complexity of what we know Bach was capable of, I have to admit the pair of the prelude and fugue is powerful enough, musically, to have in my opinion been “touched” by Bach. We may never resolve the unanswered questions, but we can enjoy the piece for what it is.

Toccata as it is used in this piece refers to a prelude. As with other preludes we have looked at, it’s purpose was to introduce the work and to tickle the keys. I think the opening bars of the piece are as about near-perfect an example of “touching” the keys, and establishing the key, as anything could be. I don’t care if it is written in parallel lines; it comes across to me as an exercise in getting our fingers to move in tandem. Perhaps I am partial to C. Wolff’s opinion of the piece being Bachian, but an “early Bach.”

I have often pointed out in this podcast of Bach’s knack for art in music, and as a composer, I’ve referred to that as invention. I have also made note of the term counterpoint in talking about Bach’s gift.

While the fugue may be simple in the harmonies it creates (counterpoint), there is something catchy about the theme. That’s why for me it speaks to the first part of the related gifts Bach had as inventor and puzzle-creator. In the 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter points out to the similarity in Bach’s gift in this area to M.C. Escher’s ability to choose visual themes that “fit together.” Just as with Bach, Escher didn’t just choose abstract designs, he instead used things we could recognize, that would pull us in, like a horse, or a fish. The fugue and its preceding toccata are not, perhaps, an Escher masterpiece in their cleverness, but BWV 565, the Toccata con fuga in D minor is, an aural showpiece. And what perhaps we might forget as we look at the score is that the drive and emotion contained within is difficult to see in notes organized upon staves.

Bachcast Episode 22: Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003

Bachcast Episode 20: Duet, BWV 805