Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

J.S. Bach, 1685-1750. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for Organ, BWV 565, arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, 1882-1977. Scored for 4 flutes, 2-3 oboes, English horn, 2-3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2-3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4-6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3-4 trombones, tuba, tympani, celesta, 2 harps, and strings.

In 1708, the 23-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach came to Weimar for a 7-year tenure as court organist, beginning one of his most productive periods. Contrary to the stiff, proper image suggested by portraits from his later years, the young musician was something of a firebrand, often composing wild music to show off his considerable talent at the organ console. One of the best-known works of this period is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a passionate, almost maniacal piece that seems more at home in late-night horror movies (where it has often been quoted) than in the dignified confines of a church organ loft.

In 1902, almost two centuries after Bach came to Weimar, another spirited young man accepted a position as an organist. This time it was Leopold Stokowski, barely 20 years old, who would take London by storm with his uninhibited playing of the organ at St. James in Piccadilly Square. The handsome and popular young man so thrilled audiences with his performances of Bach's works that one listener described herself as ``shattered'' by his rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Only a few years later, Stokowski decided to turn to conducting, and after weathering a few rejections, landed a position at Cincinnati, launching one of the most illustrious careers of the 20th Century. As he settled into his new role, he began making orchestral transcriptions of works for other instruments. It was inevitable that he should turn to his favorite piece of all, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The exact date of composition is unclear, but we know that he recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927. The arrangement became a favorite, and it was at Stokowski's insistence that it was included as the opening piece in Walt Disney's film Fantasia, which has made it so well-known today.

The word ``toccata'' (derived from the Italian toccare, ``to touch'') describes a composition that is intended to show off the performer's keyboard virtuosity. It was Bach's inspiration to combine a toccata with a following fugue, a tightly-structured form in which a theme is developed in different keys so that it harmonizes with itself (like the rounds we sang in grade school, but far more complex). In the current work, the theme of the fugue is based on the first few notes of the toccata, opening in the violins and gradually moving throughout the orchestra before the toccata itself returns for a grand finale.

© 1995, Geoff Kuenning

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