2016-10-09 Notes from the Bench

“Toccata in D minor ‘Dorian’” by Johann Sebastian Bach

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is one of the great musical geniuses of all time and among most influential composers of western music history. His music represents the pinnacle of the high-baroque style. Bach was not only a great master of writing imitative counterpoint, but he also synthesized into his own works the north-German, French, and Italianate styles of his time. To this day, much of Bach’s music is frequently performed and his works are studied extensively by a wide range of musicians.

The Toccata in D minor “Dorian” (BWV 538) is among Bach’s monumental free organ works. The term “Dorian” is frequently applied to this toccata and fugue; the tonal center for this work is “D”, however, Bach does not indicate a key signature, which suggests the work is in the Dorian church mode. The toccata is dramatic and energetic work with Italianate stringed-instrument figuration employed throughout. Bach indicates the various manual changes, which is rarely encountered in his other organ works. As is the case with many of Bach’s organ works, we do not know precisely when he composed this particular piece; it was likely written while he was in Weimar, however some scholars believe this work was written while Bach was Kantor for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a position he held from 1723-1750. Though he had few organist duties in Leipzig, Bach remained in demand to perform organ concerts and his later organ works were likely written for these occasions.



During Bach’s lifetime, he was highly regarded as a keyboard musician, especially as an organist. During his youth, he held relatively short-term posts as the organist for the Churches of St. Boniface in Arnstadt and St. Blasius in Mühlhausen. He later served as the organist for the Duke of Weimar in the Thuringia region of central Germany, a position he held from 1708-1717. Bach was extensively engaged as recitalist, a consultant, and teacher with a reputation for technical brilliance and creativity. Bach’s skills as an improviser were second to none; there are numerous accounts of Bach improvising at the organ for hours various styles of counterpoint including trios, chorale variations, and fugues. A significant number of Bach’s organ works were written while he was in Weimar and many were likely inspired by earlier improvisations.




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