2012-10-28 Notes from the Bench

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

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565)

This composition by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is probably the best known organ work of the entire repertoire. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Bach composed this piece, but it is likely an early work. During Bach’s youth, he held relatively short-term posts as the organist for the Churches of St. Boniface in Arnstadt and St. Blasius in Mühlhausen.

Bach – Toccata & Fugue in D minor (played by Scott Youngs on our All Saints’ organ)

Scott on the bench


Bach later served as the organist for the Duke of Weimar in the Thuringia region of central Germany, a position he held from 1708-1717. A significant number of Bach’s organ works were written while he was in Weimar; BWV 565 may be an early work from this period, or while he was in Arnstadt or Mühlhausen. Bach’s own manuscript of this work has not survived. The oldest surviving manuscript available is an undated copy penned by Johannes Ringk (1717-1778), a student of Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772) who knew Bach, but it is not known to what extent Kellner studied with him.

BWV 565 is a dramatic work with flourishes that span the entire compass of the keyboard, loosely connected figurations and the frequent use of diminished-seventh chords. The overall structure of the piece exhibits many features of other north German composers: a free opening, an imitative fugal section and free closing section. Other components within the work suggest influences by south German composers, including the recitative-like passages and sections within the fugue.

BWV 565 has also been transcribed for other instruments and ensembles with versions arranged for piano, wind ensemble and orchestra. The use of this work within the popular media accounts for its familiarity and cultural associations. Movie music scores include this work, such as an orchestral arrangement at the beginning of Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia.” More often, BWV 565 is associated with horror movies such as “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” These types of movies often depict a sinister master-mind playing this work on an organ within their gloomy lair.

Later this week, we celebrate Halloween, or “All Hallows’ Eve” which anticipates the Christian holy days “All Saints’” and “All Souls,” traditionally November 1 and 2 respectively, and celebrated here next Sunday. The Halloween festival as we know it within our culture has evolved over the centuries and combines various pagan and Christian elements. At various times within the Christian tradition, it was believed the souls of the departed did not immediately move on to the next world, but rather wandered the earth until All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day. All Hallows’ Eve was their last opportunity to gain revenge upon their enemies. People would attempt to disguise themselves with costumes on Halloween to avoid being recognized by the deceased. As a gesture acknowledging the upcoming festivities, we offer BWV 565 today.

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