Bach d minor, Part III
(continued from Part II)
Since the multi-sectional construction and other features of this music point to it being an early work written under the influence of the north German masters of the time who provided the young Sebastian Bach with models to imitate, and he was personally mentored by Buxtehude during the winter of 1705-1706, it seems almost certain that he created this bold work in Arnstadt around the age of 21 (c. 1706), if not a year or two earlier. Being occupied with his regular duties there only 3 days a week, he had plenty of time to practice on the Wender organ (see Touch, Part III) at that time and to grow as a composer. He also had the habit during organ inspections to check first to see if the bellows supplied enough air. The broken chords in the Toccata tests this splendidly by gradually drawing from the organ as much air as a player can demand of it with hands and feet. The gradual adding of tone on tone engenders a crescendo possible only through the means available to the organ. For example, at the end of the first arpeggio 7 times as many pipes are sounding than on the initial tone, and at the end of the 2nd arpeggio it's 9 times as many! This seems to be Bach's own discovery because anything similar will be sought in vain in the organ repertoire prior to this work. Thus the argument that this young organist wrote or improvised this music primarily to put the instrument at hand through its paces is a very strong one, even though where and when this may have taken place cannot be determined precisely.
This piece is written as a multi-sectional Praeludium in the prevailing north German "stylus phantasticus" of the time, meaning that free, improvisory sections alternated with fugal imitative sections; typically, such a piece had as many as 7 separate sections: Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free -- Strict (3/2) -- Free -- Strict (6/8) -- Free. Sometimes one or more of these sections were either omitted or consolidated, leading to pieces with only 6 or maybe as few as 3 sections altogether (single Strict section framed on each side by 2 Free sections). Bach worked the form for his "great" Toccata and Fugue in d minor by condensing the music down to 3 parts, viz., Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXII], which he would have known simply as a "Praeludium."
If this work ever existed on paper before it was premiered it's very likely that the Fugue was written first, since the elements of the Toccata spring from material in the Fugue. If you've ever written a free work (prelude, toccata, introduction, fantasia, choral, etc.) paired with a related fugue yourself, you've discovered that it's easier to develop the free work from the fugue rather than the other way around. Although it's sheer speculation, it's very possible that this work existed merely as a sketch which Bach developed into an improvisation and later committed to paper for its practical use, to which a later copyist (family member or other pupil) penned a title. The title "Toccata con Fuga" which the oldest copy of this work bears was not original with the composer.
Should this music (or, for that matter, should ANY other organ work of Bach) be interpreted? Of course. By all means. When we're exposed to all of the other great music of the world, with its great interpretations and its great feeling, there's no reason at all to isolate the greatest man of all by saying that he should not be interpreted. We just need to set some limitations as to how far we'll allow ourselves to exercise that freedom. This is because unbridled freedom makes us a slave to every whim or caprice that comes along. Within parameters therefore, we simply try to bring out all the majestic powers at work on the page and reproduce something of what we think the composer had in mind when he wrote this music, without going overboard with it.
The kind of breathtaking artistry found in this piece is nowhere to be found in the music of Bach's contemporaries, and, while the Fugue is seamlessly integrated with the Toccata, the entire work is improvisatory in nature. This is not surprising, for Bach was a superb improvisor. For as many people as can be lined up, there will be a different way of playing it. Everyone sees it, hears it, thinks of it, differently. It has structure within parameters, but there is free forum within it, and, along with this free forum comes a vast interpretative canvas. There is thus no one single way to interpret this or any other piece of music. The very best interpretations have drawbacks (and they are not mistakes, just what the interpreter feels).
At first glance it might appear that there are several thousand ways, at least, to play this work, but that would fall far way short of the mark. The number of ways the free opening can be played, figuring only 2 different possibilities for each of its 30 measures, calculates to well over a billion (see Calculating Stop Combinations, Part II). This is part of the sense of the music. This free forum provides a playground which beckons every performer to take their own personal walk through it. If that walk happens to morph into an unpredictable rampage the listener tagging along will have trouble keeping up, and herein lies the danger. Probably no other piece of organ music has been subjected to such extremes in interpretation and, as a consequence, so systematically mishandled.
Because not everything in this music has to be played in strict rhythm too many performers think of it as a musical free-for-all, an excuse to tamper, to make it as undisciplined and bizarre as rhythmically possible to attract attention or maybe even to scare people as so many Hollywood movie producers have tried to employ it ... as background music for every kind of vampire-led, zombie Apocalypse scene from which they think they can work into a motion picture to turn a profit for the studio. This ridiculous association -- between this work and a few scenes from a retarded Dracula film -- is something they never fail to make. It's both childish and revealing of a perfect blindness, a lack of grasping anything meaningful of Bach's musical universe, one of tremendous richness, subtlety, and sophistication. Somewhere on the shore of this musical ocean we know as Sebastian Bach lies the American movie producer, proud that he or she took a measurement of this ocean's depth with their index finger. Bach would have torn his French full bottom wig from his head (photo) and thrown it at these people when it was never ever, repeat never, his intention to frighten anyone with his music or connect it with the macabre. The very idea would have been abhorent to him.
If this were all that's been done to mischaracterize this music it would be bad enough, but it's been put to worse use. To be perfectly honest, it's been torn asunder and made into a dog and pony show as if it were some kind of proving ground. Sadly, we observe some of this same thing in certain recordings made of other Bach organ favorities -- notably the c minor Passacaglia and the G Major "jig" Fugue -- pieces that also seem to survive somehow in spite of every punishment known to Western civilization being inflicted upon them. We've heard it butchered and cut into pieces for the sake of color. We've heard its powerful opening ruined by smug ornamenting. We've heard it played like the organ's keys were burning the fingers. We've heard it played like the fingers were playing in a pot of glue. We've heard it demolished with "additions" and "corrections." We've heard it leave the station with a mighty roar, go through a bumpy ride, then chug to a stop, start up again, run out of steam, pour on the coal, then go off the rails. We've heard it circle the drain for pages and then save itself at the end. We've heard it take a nose dive from the opening fanfare only to gain altitude and crash and burn on the 2nd page. We've heard it executed all right, the same as a criminal guilty of an atrocious crime. Then again, we've also heard and have been very moved by some amazing interpretations, many of them on period instruments, by some very inspired performers.
We have also seen this work performed with all manner of gyrations on the bench, postural distortions, even grimaces, head shaking, and swaying movements which gave the impression that the player was either channeling, suffering from vertigo, or having an apoplectic fit. The habit of swaying forwards and backwards, shaking the head, and introducing graceful arm choreography and other mannerisms into organ performance takes no part in the production of sound. This is cultivated merely to make it look to the casual observer that the player is doing something besides push keys. The truth is, all unnecessary movement on the bench is technically harmful because it's a waste of time and energy which can be spent more profitably on matters of technique. How and which mannerisms to cultiviate should find no place in the player's mind, ever, as it distracts from the work at hand. Organ playing, indeed, requires no physical strain, gyrations, or mannerisms to deliver all the powers at work on the page or in the player's imagination to the listener's ear [See blog, Mannerisms].
There's a certain type of player -- a concert organist who has won accalaim perhaps for musical acrobatics, astounding technical feats, and outrageous interpretations -- or perhaps a titular at a very large, important instrument, who has made a name in the organ world because of it -- who performs this work under the premise that if Bach were alive today he would be doing all of these things and more, using everything the modern organ has to offer and every means of appealing to the modern ears of a modern audience. This type of player tends to add and retire stops and couplers in huge clumps by means of the combination action with the idea that, by doing so, the music is better served; chords are doubled an octave higher or lower at climactic points; suboctave stops (Doubles) or couplers are drawn in the manuals with abandon; pedal notes are doubled in octaves, all to get a larger sound; the widest possible range of known dynamics and tempos are employed in the opening Toccata, from an ear-splitting double fortissimo down to a barely audible double pianissimo, from an insane prestissimo down to a barely moving lento, all performed in mysterioso style; the central fugal section is also performed mysterioso or perhaps in crescendo style with the echo passages disappearing as faintly as the opening exposition; extra pedal notes are added to the score, passages in running figuration are ground into confetti and scattered with both hands over every manual there is, and the notes in the final chord are multiplied and morphed into D major, not to deliver all of the majestic powers at work on the page but merely to demonstrate the performer's boldness, imagination, and executive abilities; a liberal dose of foreign ornaments, foreign trills, and even trills on extra pedal notes, none of which appear in the score, are introduced without any sense of taste or accountability. The result: the audience is treated to all sorts of craft and no musicianship -- all sauce and no beefsteak.
Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting our Bach-playing to appeal a wider audience, to get people to like it better, and to try doing a little bit (emphasis on "little bit") of this or that, within limits, to spice up our interpretations in the pursuit of that objective and to make it more original and appealing. We also need to bear firmly in mind, when we're working in the kitchen, that a point can be reached very soon where, if we keep adding salt, pepper, vinegar, and everything else we can think of, to the recipe and keep messing with it, the dish quickly can be ruined. Everything in organ playing is balance, and that also applies to the ingredients in our Bach interpretations. Adding too much of a good thing, adding it in the wrong place, or worse -- working without a recipe at all, throwing any and all kinds of stuff into a blender and serving it up -- is never a good idea -- especially when it's done to try to prove before every audience that the player is a virtuoso when the fact has already been well established. Much of Bach's organ music, not just this work, has been torn asunder because of it.
This is not rocket science. The last time a dozen (instead of two) bananas were baked into a banana cake, it cut like sausage and tasted horrible. When the listening public orders soup we can't expect to set before them a plate of gravy without them walking out of the restaurant. Still, some organists are, in effect, doing exactly that, with THIS music. Some players heavily influenced by Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcription also like to solo the fugue subject and color the fugue like mad. In Karl Tausig's transcription for piano solo the ornamented first note of the toccata is even wrongly written upside down using an upper auxiliary note (Bb) instead of a lower auxiliary note (G).
NOTHING IN THIS WORK SEEMS TO HAVE ESCAPED THE WRECKING BALL. The middle section of this work employing fugal procedure has even been reincarnated as a French Toccata and recorded at a ridiculously fast tempo, turning it into a torrent of notes; the coda also has been rearranged with the final chord expanded (in the major, of course) and reiterated under an inverted pedal point. These things do more than multiply notes, insert massive crescendos, or employ color stops unknown to the composer -- it changes the composer's harmony. This kind of proceeding may impress the senses, help to sell a prize-winning performer's next CD, win them applause from an uninitiated audience, or elicit a chuckle or two from an orchestral player, but it would have the composer picking his wig up off the floor and throwing it at them again. If we're going to play Bach, then we should play Bach, not a commentary based upon Bach. Our own flights of fancy are better saved for when we write our own music.
A retrograde version of the free opening, or Toccata portion (J.S. Bach/Enjott Schneider, Attacot), was even published having every one of its 30 measures written backwards, note for note. The first third of this work is thus performed in reverse. The purpose here, obviously, is to entertain and nothing more, simply to show that it can be done, and to make a parody out of a work of art. This poor composition simply got caught in the crosshairs of this fad -- and the next fad may be worse. The real proof of knowing this piece forwards and backwards is how well the powers at work on the page can be communicated to the listener and deliver what went through the composer's mind AS HE HEARD IT AND AS HE WROTE IT.
As with so much of Bach's other major organ music, no autograph of this piece survives. The oldest copy surviving to this day traces to German organist Johann Ringk who studied organ with Bach pupils Johann Peter Kellner and Johann Christian Kittel, made many copies of early music, and played an important role in the dissemination of Bach's works. While it's possible that Kellner may have been the source for Ringk's copy, more surviving copies of this work are traceable to Kittel who was one of Bach's last surviving pupils. Ringk's copy therefore was very likely made from an earlier copy, now lost, once in the possession of Kittel, as it agrees with all the others. The Italian tempo marks, fermatas, and staccato dots in Ringk's copy, all of which are very unusual in pre-1740 German organ music, probably did not originate with the composer and were additions by Ringk or a later copyist. The title "Toccata con fuga" appearing in Ringk's copy is probably also a later addition, as most German organ compositions written in this style during this period were usually given the simple title "Praeludium."
The notation itself also has to be watched. Bach had the habit of including an extra bar among the stems of a consecutive run of short notes to indicate when he wanted an extra note of equal value to be squeezed into that run. This extra bar does not mean that the extra note moves suddenly faster. It simply means that between the bottom note and top note all the notes come out evenly, but with one more. This is how it was notated in early times, and an example can be found in measure 19 of this work. The run is performed in one swoop where the bottom note and top note come out on the beat. All the notes of this run written for the right hand are of equal duration. The first section of Bach's G Major Fantasia for organ is loaded with these figures.
(continued in Part IV)