There isn't sufficient room in these blog postings to touch upon every detail in performing this famous work, but certain parts of it, particularly its iconic opening fanfare (photo, measures 1-3) being one of the most
immortal passages in the history of Western music and the one which the general public most identifies with Bach the organist, demand comments. How this short passage of 3 measures is performed says a great deal, almost everything, about the performer.
And, as a performer of repertoire, our mission is not to place virtuosity above all else or attempt to impress the audience with our own in-depth esoteric and scholarly discoveries of stylistic authenticity about this or any other piece of music. Our
mission rather is to make every part of the composer's score audible and to give life to all of the majestic powers at work on the page using an appropriate registration, touch, and tempo so that its impact is fully delivered and the expectations of the listener
are at least met, if not exceeded. The result is to sound like the composer, not an improvisation on the composer. This rock-solid premise should be kept firmly in mind, even if it gets us crossways at times with a performer we greatly admire or
perhaps someone assigned, or previously assigned, to teach us.
The most important thing to remember when performing this Toccata, especially when the organ's action is electrically assisted, is that EXCESSIVE SPEED WILL ROB IT OF
ITS MAJESTY AND RIVETING EFFECT. Rush through it, and many dramatic moments will be lost. When all of the majestic powers at work on the page are fully delivered to the audience it should grip the listeners and leave them awestruck. This
will not happen if the performer plays it too fast and doesn't linger on the silences.
THE WORST MISTAKE WE CAN MAKE IS TO MISS THE CHANCE TO LINGER ON THESE SILENCES.
At the outset many teachers feel it's helpful to mentally count 16ths, get
them firmly in the mind, even mark these beats in the score in pencil with small accent markings (>), and learn it that way. This helps us to keep track of the pulse, and, while it helps to count 16ths mentally when we're learning the work, all things
in the opening free section of this piece don't have to be counted. The rhythm is free. This music actually benefits when the rhythm isn't regular and predictable with every single move it makes, the silences are prolonged, and notes move a bit
slower than the tempo marks in the score indicate. It's important to remember that the tempo marks which have come down to us were inserted by later copyists, and that tempos is Bach's day operated within a more narrow range of fluctuation. Bach's
Adagio was a tad faster, for example, and his Presto a tad slower, than what these terms might imply today. It's also important to recall that the German organ of his time, having unassisted mechanical (tracker) action and unstable wind supply, did not
very well accomodate manual figuration played as fast as humanly possible.
I tend to draw a full plenum registration minus chorus reeds/mixture for the Toccata, but adding a light mixture to the main manual, manuals and pedals coupled, and 32' foundation
stop in the Pedal, remaining on the main manual through the entire opening fanfare and 1st rolled chord. Be very mindful of the first three notes. THERE ARE ONLY THREE, AND AUDIENCES EXPECT ONLY THREE. Those who greatly multiply these
first three notes by inserting different ornamenting into this opening fanfare, for whatever reasons, can find themselves on a slippery slope. This isn't meant to be a deprecating remark against freedom of expression or interpretation, but, in this case,
it's nevertheless true. When a performance of this work is announced, general audiences are waiting with great expectation and bated breath to hear those infamous, iconic inverted mordents over the opening A's break through the silence like a thunder
clap. When we tamper with these first three notes and change their execution, like it or not, an element of confusion and perhaps even disappointment can be introduced which could color the audience's reception against everything else that comes after
it. It's therefore up to individual performers to decide for themselves if and to what degree this is something that can be safely tampered with, or not.
NOTE: an ornament or embellishment represented in the score by a pictograph above or
below a note, when authetically inserted into the music by the composer, is an integral part of the music and, as such, is to be observed as indicated rather than ignored, added to, or replaced with something else [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part
XXXVIII/Ornaments]. Period organists indeed may have engaged in such liberties when performing on early instruments since the practice may have played a role in the playing style of the time, but modern listeners generally don't understand any of that
and don't care. Thus, whether or not there's anything to be gained by doing so today is a matter left for the performer to decide.
A 32-foot stop, if the instrument has one, should be drawn for the held low D's in the pedal. These pedal
notes act as pillars to provide the harmonic support and underpining for the enormous weight of tone of the massive rolled chords played above them. I play this opening passage legato throughout and exaggerate the values of the rests. It's very
effective to exaggerate these silences because they tightly focus the attention and make the audience wonder what's coming next. SILENCES CAN BE SOME OF THE MOST ELECTRIFYING THINGS IN MUSIC. I also tend NOT to break the bottom C# in the run from
the remaining notes and linger just a bit on that C# before landing on the final D. It's interesting that the low C#2 in the left hand part in the 2nd measure was impossible on the manuals of the Arnstadt organ. If
performing at Arnstadt Bach would have had to omit this note and give the C#3 in the right hand an agogic accent by holding it a trifle longer without breaking rhythm. The first low pedal D1 is played regularly in time, lingering on the dissonance in
the first rolled chord before resolving. It's very effective to hang on to this dissonance a bit before it's resolved. THE RESOLUTION SHOULD NOT BE RUSHED. It's good for the listener to hear that tension, to let that chord sit there for a
moment, and let it squirm, then hear the release. The player can simply hit the low pedal D and begin rolling regularly and deliberately without an accelerando.
Some insert a crescendo here, as well as other places in this work, by opening
the swell shoe and adding stops and couplers, even doubling all the notes in manuals and Pedal to employ the maximum number of pipes for maximum effect. This dynamic effect of the swell was unknown to the German organ which Bach knew, and the interpreter
is under some obligation to consider performing a composer's music as written with the type of instrument in mind that the composer knew. Let it be understood howver that some of the most gifted organists in history who have held important posts
where a fine, large modern organ was available (Romantic/late Romantic names like Widor and Vierne being notable examples) have employed the swell shoe, with discretion, in their Bach playing, in well thought out ways prepared
in advance, for the flexibility it offers, to shade prominent stops, and to bring the sound closer for climactic passages. Vierne also doubled many notes in his own interpretation of this work. It also helps to bear in mind that it's a safe bet
that J.S. Bach, the organist and complete practical musician, if he were alive today, would avail himself of everything the modern organ has to offer.
When the Toccata is started it's best to save the chorus reeds and bigger mixture and add them for
the diminished 7th arpeggios in both hands, dialogue the main manual with subsidiary manuals registered more softly for contrast through the middle of the work, and save the biggest full organ for last. Some play it as fast as possible, especially the
diminished 7th arpeggios, but they really should not be played all that fast and actually rivet the attention more when the tempo is Allegretto.
After the resolution of the first rolled chord comes a rising figure in octaves which is repeated like an
echo an octave higher. This can be done all on the secondary manual at the same soft dynamic. These rising figures are divided into thirds separated by two quick notes. The thirds are played legato and the two quick notes are detached.
After this comes a descending sequence of repeated arpeggios made up of common chords in root position. These are played legato starting quite slow, then quickening tempo just a tad as they descend, still on the slow and deliberate side, and slowing
down a good deal, almost to a crawl, as the second low pedal D is reached. The following chord is rolled slowly and regularly in time with the top note held just long enough at the release of the chord to make itself heard. Its fall is quick, and
the cadential figure and trill which follows is played very slow. The trill on middle F might start slow and then accelerate a little before coming to a stop on that note.
The next passage is played softer and detached at a faster pace with the
reiterated A taken on a secondary manual. For this passage it helps to go to a softer piston combo which uncouples the manuals and removes one thin layer of sound. This quicker tempo continues and alternates with a slower tempo when the manual
figuration and downward scalar passage in the pedal enter. The tempo here remains flexible, and rest values remain exaggerated. The figuration which follows picks up speed and but slows down a bit as it approaches the high held Bb in the right
hand. Here, as mentioned earlier, we have to watch early notation. Bach sometimes indicated a double bar when he wanted to insert an extra note into a run. It doesn't mean that two notes suddenly go faster but that the first note and last
note come out on the beat, but with one more note added. It's played in one upward sweep in equal note values. Similar figures found in other organ music from that time are sometimes notated the same way. Bach's Fantasia in G Major is loaded
The long passage in diminished 7th arpeggios can be divided into five parts with the last note in each fifth detached. The remaining notes in each fifth are played at a quick Allegretto, LIVELY BUT NOT INSANELY FAST, and legato (if
faster speeds are used the touch would switch to impercievably broken). Fingering here is important, but the thumbs need not pass under the fingers. In this passage the hands can be lifted completely off the keys at the detached note which concludes
each of the five groups. This keeps the fingers in the same basic position through the entire passage without having to cross the thumbs under. Again, at concert tempo these arpeggios should NOT just take off like a gunshot and leave the listener
behind. They can start a little easy on a secondary manual with the biggest full organ, speed up a little in the middle, and slow down markedly at the end. The four big spread chords for both hands which follow will enter unexpectedly with incredible
ferocity when the chorus reeds, big mixture, and 32' Bombarde are held back for this moment, an effect which tends to be spoiled by starting the Toccata with the same sound.
On the first and second of these big spread chords some prefer to connect the
first three by holding the second note from the top in the right hand when the score indicates a complete release (they hold the high E in the first V7 chord and high F in the following I chord in the right hand part). This is not marked in the score
but gets things smoother and keeps the music from sounding too choppy. These kinds of things have a way of gripping an audience and fully delivering all of the majestic powers at work on the page. The final pedal solo can start a little easy to
get the listener with us, speed up just a bit in the middle, then pull out near the end. PLEASE RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO RACE THROUGH THIS PEDAL SOLO. If it takes off too quickly it leaves the listener behind, then they have to catch up, and they're
a little lost briefly, not to mention the fact that the entire gripping effect of this moving pedal line will be spoiled. The final crushing chords are played SLOW, with the very last chord held a little longer than indicated in the score to let the
listener know that this is a final chord and that this section of the music is coming to a stop.
Bach most certainly felt dynamic change in his music, and he wrote it into his counterpoint to help provide volume control on the instrument
he knew, which was entirely unenclosed. The entire concept of fugue, as voices enter one by one and drop out one by one, is built upon the idea of crescendo and diminuendo, and causes the ear to perceive dynamic effects. As held notes in big chords
start to pile up, one by one, wave on wave, the listener also perceives a crescendo. In the same way, when the pedal line comes to a stop and the voices drop from 4 or 5 down to 2, the ear notices a falling off in volume. Nevertheless,
two and a half centuries of scholarship have not made up for the fact that Bach left behind only tantalizations, not registrations. Registration indications are scarce in his organ works, but this much is known: he used a full plenum (organo pleno) sound,
or something approaching it, to perform his own preludes, toccatas, fantasias, the passacaglia, fugues, and several types of choral preludes, viz. choral fugues, choral fantasias, and chorale preludes written in vocal style with a tutti instrumental
texture. For all other types of choral preludes, choral partitas, and trios he employed softer, carefully selected stop combinations used soloistically or as small ensembles on individual manuals.
As for performing this work on period instruments
it should be remembered that Bach could not use 2-foot stops in the plenum at Arnstadt, as the Wender organ was not supplied with any. When the objective is a performance as one would have heard in early 18th century central Germany the basic core sound
JSB had in mind for the plenum in fugue playing, at least for the early Arnstadt works, can be approached by drawing on manual I the 8-foot principal chorus topped by a bright 4-foot Octave and IV rank mixture, drawing on manual II a chorus built
upon an 8-foot covered flute and 4-foot Principal topped with a 2-2/3 foot Nazard and III rank Mixture, and drawing on the Pedal a tame 16-foot reed at minimum. For additional power at Arnstadt Bach would have considered adding the 8-foot Trumpet
to manual I, coupling manual II to manual I, and coupling manual I to Pedal. It's very instructive to hear this music performed on Germanic instruments using only these exact stops, but when performing on larger instruments Bach probably reduced
the number of covered stops and substituted more open stops and tame reeds to create better definition with the bigger sound. If the organ at hand happens to be supplied with a 5-1/3 foot Quint stop in manual I, or if this stop can be supplied through
coupling, then it, too, has a place in the Bach plenum. In its absence some tame 16-foot or 8-foot reed tone, if it's not too assertive, can be added to manual I with advantage for the production of the fullest effects. On modern
organs all dull sounding diapasons, thick sounding flutes, orchestrally voiced stops, screaming mixtures, if any, and big reeds obviously should be left out. At Arnstadt there were no 4-foot reeds either because there was no need for them. On the
old German organs the upper work was voiced brightly enough for the plenum to work without them. The Pedal at Arnstadt also lacked 4-foot stops and a mixture, but these could be coupled from the main manual, and there seems to be a lesson here.
To keep the actual pitches sounding in the bass line from overlapping the middle voices in a fugue, Bach and his school had a fondness for drawing a tame 16-foot reed in the Pedal, usually all by itself or with a mild 8-foot principal, gedeckt,
or other "helper stop" added. In his day the practice typically adopted on the German organ was to leave out all reeds from the manual plenum. On the other hand, there was nothing "usual" or "average" or "typical" about J.S. Bach the
organist. His son C.P.E. Bach reported that, in his time, no one understood the registration of organ stops as well as his father, and that his father drew the stops "in his own manner." If the manual upperwork is so piercing when drawn as
to make all the voices of a fugue sound equally "high," then the inclusion of some tame reed tone would be a definite help. Whether or not to mix reeds with the Bach plenum depends upon the organ. If we do whatever it takes to make the organ we're
playing sound like a true Bach plenum and let the effect of the music be our guide, we won't go wrong.
As always, the ear should be the judge, not the brain. Clarity in contrapuntal music demands a certain sacrifice of absolute strength.
The Bach interpreter is obliged to be discerning and economical in drawing the stops and couplers and be continually on guard against mixing too many stops together at the expense of clarity. At the same time, Bach valued the importance of suboctave
stops, particularly tame reeds, in providing gravity. Knowing this, some very effective interpretations of Bach organ fugues have been performed with little or no stop changes, by drawing a tame 16-foot reed with the main manual
plenum, even adding a 32-foot stops to the tame 16-foot reed already drawn in the Pedal for climactic passages, and obtaining variety simply by changing manuals, changing touch, and nuancing the tempo.
As for the Fugue, in the
opening exposition we find the subject starting on the 5th scale degree with a real answer provided starting on the 1st scale degree, as expected, in this case taking the music into the subdominant tonality [See blog, Ten Steps Of Fugue Writing]. Two
separate and rather long extended links connect the answer with the 3rd entry, and the 3rd entry with the 4th entry, respectively. After the music lands in the relative key a long central episode follows in which the texture thins to 2 parts and echo
passages are employed using a secondary manual. The music then modulates quickly to the unrelated key of c minor for the next entry and gradually returns to the subdominant and finally the tonic key. After coming to a complete stop on a big Bb
Major chord a very free ending employing running figuration and big chords brings this work to a majestic close.