2012-10-14 Notes from the Bench

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

“‘Toccata’ from ‘Suite Gothique'” by Léon Boëllmann

The French composer, teacher and music critic Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897) is mostly remembered for his organ works.  “Suite gothique” (1895) is his best-known, and most frequently performed composition, especially the concluding “Toccata” movement.  “Priere à Notre Dame,” played as prelude selection this month, is also from this suite.



Boëllmann was the organist for the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris from 1881 until his death.  The church’s Grand orgue (great organ) was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1852, the creator of the French symphonic organ.  These instruments were built with a variety of tonal color inspired by the nineteenth-century orchestra.  Technical advancements in organ building provided for a lighter keyboard touch and devises that helped the organist create dramatic musical effects.  These organs greatly influenced composers and the types of music they wrote for the instrument during this era.

The term “toccata” is derived from the Italian toccare which means “to touch.”  The toccata first appeared as a musical genre in the 1590s in several Italian publications, and continued to be used throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras as a primary genre for keyboard or plucked string instruments.  These pieces are typically virtuosic works, written with brilliant, fast-moving passages or figurations that display the dexterity of the performer.  They often have an improvisational feel, occasionally containing loose counterpoint, and have varying sectional construction.

Following a period of less common usage, the toccata genre was revived during the nineteenth century and became an important form of the French romantic organ school.  The toccatas of this era were composed with the characteristic rapid figuration coupled with powerful melodies and utilize the full tonal resources of the organ.  Toccatas, including today’s Boëllmann selection, are certainly popular concert pieces and often played as the postlude to the worship services of many faith traditions.

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