Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, is a piece of organ music attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach. First published in 1833 through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn, the piece quickly became popular, and is now one of the most famous works in the organ repertoire. The attribution of the piece to Bach, however, has been challenged since the 1970s by a number of scholars.


As with most Bach organ works, no autograph manuscript of BWV 565 survives. The only near-contemporary source is an undated copy by Johannes Ringk, a pupil of Johann Peter Kellner. Several compositions by him survive, and he is also notable today for his copies of numerous keyboard works by Georg Böhm, Johann Pachelbel, Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Dieterich Buxtehude, and other important masters.

The title of the piece is given in Ringk's manuscript as Toccata Con Fuga. It is most probably a later addition, similar to the title of Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, because in the Baroque era such organ pieces would most commonly be called simply Prelude (Praeludium, etc.) or Prelude and Fugue.  Ringk's copy abounds in Italian tempo markings, fermatas (a characteristic feature of Ringk's copies) and staccato dots, all very unusual features for pre–1740 German music. All later manuscript copies that are known today originate directly or indirectly with Ringk's.

BWV 565 exhibits a typical simplified north German structure with a free opening (toccata), a fugal section (fugue), and a short free closing section. The connection to the north German organ school was noted early by Bach biographer Philipp Spitta in 1873.  However, the numerous recitative stretches are rarely found in the works of northern composers and may have been inspired by Johann Heinrich Buttstett, whose few surviving free works, particularly his Prelude and Capriccio in D minor, exhibit similar features. A passage in the fugue of BWV 565 is an exact copy of a phrase in one of Johann Pachelbel's D minor fantasias, and the first half of the subject is based on this Pachelbel passage as well.  It was common practice at the time to create fugues on other composers' themes, and a number of such pieces by Bach are known (BWV 574, 579, 950, etc.); moreover, the bass pattern of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, is borrowed from André Raison's organ passacaglia, also using only the first half of Raison's passage (just the way BWV 565 borrows from Pachelbel).

The work was first published by Breitkopf & Härtel in late 1833 as part of a collection of Bach's organ works. The edition was conceived and partly prepared by Felix Mendelssohn, who had BWV 565 in his repertoire already by 1830. Mendelssohn's opinion of the piece, expressed in one of his letters, was that it was "at the same time learned and something for the [common] people." The first major public performance was also by Mendelssohn, on 6 August 1840 in Leipzig. The concert was very well received by the critics, among them Robert Schumann. Later in the 19th century, Franz Liszt adopted the piece into his organ repertoire, and a piano transcription was made by Liszt's pupil Carl Tausig, which gained substantial fame. Another popular transcription was completed in 1899 by Ferruccio Busoni. In the 20th century, an orchestral version of the piece, created by Leopold Stokowski, popularized the work further when it was included in Walt Disney's film Fantasia, released in 1940.

The work's famous opening drew attention and praise already from Schumann, who, however, admired it as an example of Bach's sense of humor.  In the 20th century the work was generally viewed very differently, as a bold and dramatic piece. Musicologist Hermann Keller, writing in 1948, described the opening bars' unison passages as "descending like a lightning flash, the long roll of thunder of the broken chords of the full organ, and the stormy undulation of the triplets."  A similar view has been expressed by noted Bach scholar and former director of Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Hans-Joachim Schulze:

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.

Writing in 2005, organist and Bach scholar Hans Fagius commented that while the authorship issue may remain unresolved, the enduring popularity of the work is not difficult to understand, since there is "a fantastic drive and energy to the piece that simply make it irresistible."


The Toccata begins with a single-voice flourish in the upper ranges of the keyboard, doubled at the octave. It then spirals toward the bottom, where a diminished seventh chord appears (which actually implies a dominant chord with a minor 9th against a tonic pedal), built one note at a time. This resolves into a D major chord:


Three short passages follow, each reiterating a short motif and doubled at the octave. The section ends with a diminished seventh chord which resolved into the tonic, D minor, through a flourish. The second section of the Toccata is a number of loosely connected figurations and flourishes; the pedal switches to the dominant key, A minor. This section segues into the third and final section of the Toccata, which consists almost entirely of a passage doubled at the sixth and comprising reiterations of the same three-note figure, similar to doubled passages in the first section. After a brief pedal flourish, the piece ends with a D minor chord.

Hear the Music

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 
The subject of the four-voice fugue is made up entirely of sixteenth notes, with an implied pedal point set against a brief melodic subject that first falls, then rises. Such violinistic figures are frequently encountered in Baroque music and that of Bach, both as fugue subjects and as material in non-imitative pieces.  Unusually, the answer is in the subdominant key, rather than the traditional dominant. Although technically a four-part fugue, most of the time there are only three voices, and some of the interludes are in two, or even one voice (notated as two). Although only simple triadic harmony is employed throughout the fugue, there is an unexpected C minor subject entry, and furthermore, a solo pedal statement of the subject—a unique feature for a Baroque fugue.  Immediately after the final subject entry, the composition resolves to a sustained B♭ major chord. A multi-sectional coda follows, marked Recitativo. Although only 17 bars long, it progresses through five tempo changes. The last bars are played Molto adagio, and the piece ends with a minor plagal cadence.

As was common practice for German music of the 17th century, the intended registration is not specified, and performers' choices vary from simple solutions such as organo pleno to exceedingly complex ones, such as Liszt's preference for glockenspiel stop for Prestissimo triplets in the opening section, and the quintadena stop for repeated notes in bars 12–15.


Some of the earliest publications to raise the authorship question were articles by Walter Emery (1966) and Friedrich Blume (1965), and Roger Bullivant's book Fugue (1971).[20] Ten years after Bullivant's volume, a paper by musicologist Peter Williams was published, dealing specifically with BWV 565 and outlining a number of stylistic problems present in the piece.  These included, but were not limited to, the following, all either unique or extremely rare for organ music of the period the toccata is allegedly from:

  • Parallel octaves throughout the opening of the toccata
  • True subdominant answers in the fugue
  • A pedal statement of the subject, unaccompanied by other voices (also in Bullivant, and mentioned elsewhere)
  • Primitive harmonies throughout the piece, with countersubjects in the fugue frequently moving through thirds and sixths only
  • Conclusion of the piece on a minor plagal cadence (also in Bullivant)

In 1998 the issue was explored in a book-length study by the musicologist Rolf-Dietrich Claus.  In 2006, a statistical analysis supported the validity of the authorship question concerning the fugue of BWV 565.  Several theories concerning the authorship of the work were put forward by scholars. For example, the piece may have been created by another composer who must have been born in the beginning of the 18th century, since details of style (such as triadic harmony, spread chords, and the use of solo pedal) may indicate post–1730, or even post–1750 idioms.  In 1982, scholar David Humphreys suggested that such a composer could come from the circle of Ringk's teacher Johann Peter Kellner (1705–1772), who had close ties with the Bach family.

Another theory, first put forward by Williams in 1981, suggests that BWV 565 may have been a transcription of a lost solo violin piece. Parallel octaves and the preponderance of thirds and sixths may be explained by a transcriber's attempt to fill in harmony which, if preserved as is, would be inadequately thin on a pipe organ. This is corroborated by the fact that the subject of the fugue, and certain passages (such as bars 12–15), are evidently inspired by string music. Bach is known to have transcribed solo violin works for organ at least twice.  Williams put this theory into practice by writing a reconstruction of the conjectured original violin work, which has been performed (by violinists Jaap Schröder and Simon Standage), and published.  The violinist Andrew Manze subsequently produced his own reconstruction, also in A minor, which he has performed and recorded. Another violin version was created by scholar Bruce Fox-Lefriche in 2004, and other string instruments have been suggested for the original piece as well, e.g. a five string cello — a possibility explored in a 2000 article by Mark Argent.

Among the numerous examples of scholars referring to the work as one of doubtful attribution are the 1997 Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by scholar and performer John Butt, as well as recent monographs on Bach's music by harpsichordist and musicologist David Schulenberg and Richard Douglas Jones. However, the designation of BWV 565 as a work of doubtful attribution is not supported by the renowned Bach scholar Christoph Wolff. Writing about BWV 565 in his seminal Bach biography, Johann Sebastian Bach — The Learned Musician, he does not address most of the specific problems of the piece, instead maintaining that any and all problematic passages are explained by the fact that BWV 565 must be an early work. The parallel octaves, Wolff writes, must be explained by the deficiencies of Bach's Arnstadt organ, which the composer sought to rectify.

Arrangements and Transcriptions

This popular work has been transcribed many times. Around the end of the 19th century a "second wave" Bach revival occurred (the first having been the one launched earlier in the 19th century by Felix Mendelssohn among others). In the second wave, much of Bach's instrumental music was adapted to resources that were available in salon settings (for example solo piano, or chamber ensembles). The composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni was a leader of this movement, and wrote many piano transcriptions of Bach compositions, which often radically alter the original. Among them was a virtuosic version of the Toccata and Fugue, which tries to replicate the spirit of the original organ sound. An earlier virtuoso piano transcription also once much in vogue was by Carl Tausig; pianist Marie Novello chose it for what one source claims to be the Toccata and Fugue's first recording. Among other arrangements that have appeared on record are those by Percy Grainger, Ignaz Friedman and Louis Brassin.

The wind organ medium translates readily to the concert band and wind ensemble. Such band versions include transcriptions by Donald Hunsberger (Alfred Publ.).

Stokowski's first 78rpm disc of 1927 was an international best-seller which introduced the music to many record collectors. He recorded it several more times in subsequent years. Others who have transcribed the Toccata and Fugue for orchestra include Lucien Cailliet, René Leibowitz, Leonidas Leonardi, Alois Melichar, Eugene Ormandy, Fabien Sevitzky, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, and Henry Wood (pseudonymously, as "Paul Klenovsky").

In the mid-1990s, Canadian Brass created an adaptation for quintet that has become the "must perform" standard work for brass ensembles the world over. More than twenty thousand copies of the adaptation by former member Fred Mills have been sold to date through the Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation, and the work is recorded on several of their CDs, the most recent being Takes Flight released in 2012.  In 1993, Salvatore Sciarrino made an arrangement for solo flute, recorded by Mario Caroli.   A version for solo horn was made by Zsolt Nagy[40] and has been performed by Frank Lloyd.

In popular culture

The Toccata has been used in a variety of popular media ranging from film, video games, to rock music, and ringtones.

It is used for the opening credits of the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In 1960 Federico Fellini featured the track in his movie La Dolce Vita, being played by a character at a church organ.

The 1962 film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera by Hammer Productions featured the piece, and since then, the movie has helped to associate the music with horror movies, Halloween, and the like in popular culture.

The jazz/R&B group Brass Fever featured an arrangement of the composition on their self-titled 1975 album as "Bach Bone".

Jon Lord of Deep Purple fame recorded a composition called "Bach onto this", which is based on BWV 565. It appears on his 1982 album Before I Forget.

English progressive rock band Egg covered the piece for their 1970 debut album.

Dutch progressive/symphonic rock band Ekseption covered the piece for their 1973 album Trinity.

The English classical/rock fusion band Sky (featuring the classical guitarist John Williams and classical percussionist Tristan Fry) scored a Top 10 pop hit with their 1980 arrangement of the Toccata section of BWV 565. This version crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, charting at #83.

Vanessa-Mae recorded a cover of this piece. It reached number 24 on the Billboard charts.

The track is used for the opening credits and final freeze-frame of the 1975 film Rollerball.

In 1978 Walter Murphy released the album Phantom of the Opera that featured a rearrangement of Toccata and Fugue, entitled Toccata and Funk in D minor. The rest of the album samples the score heavily.

In Disney's 1940 film, Fantasia, it is used as the first piece of the film. The disney animators were given an abstract theme to create the image to the music.

In another Disney film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo (played by James Mason) performs the piece on an organ.

External Links

Sheet music