At the Prelude (10:50 am)
Today I turn to the “center of the universe,” the most important composer for the organ of all times: Johann Sebastian Bach. And why not start with the single most famous organ composition ever written?
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
This amazing piece almost lives in a world of its own among the organ pieces of Bach. Its construction is the “loosest” of any of his large-scale organ works, and, indeed, there are other pieces more profound, more perfectly constructed. If you were to comment on its form you could say it starts with a toccata, like a wild, highly-dramatic fantasia, followed by a highly unusual fugue: it begins as a formal four-part fugue where the fugue theme is given to each voice part, one after the other. But then, at the end of this first section, the piece suddenly stops its fugal style and enjoys a free-style section in only one or two parts, sometimes employing echoes. And then, this section is suddenly dropped, and we’re back in a fugal texture again which intensifies, and then it, too, stops suddenly on a very surprising B-flat Major chord. And finally the piece nearly explodes with an amazingly dramatic toccata-fantasia section to close the piece.
So what do we make of this? Surely the construction points back to the Preludes and Fugues of Buxtehude, which were always constructed in such a loose, improvisatory style. And it was also very influenced by the extravagant harmonic gestures of the South German composer Georg Muffat. But what this piece has that theirs do not is an organic progression through all these different elements – a progression that is so strong, so organically “right” that one cannot imagine it going any other way. The amazing musical world it creates, the elemental power of the piece – this is the force, the vision of Bach which has captivated music lovers for centuries.
At the Postlude:
We all believe in One God (Credo)
Johann Sebastian Bach
This is the large-scale Credo from Bach’s organ Mass in his Clavierübung, Part III. The contrapuntal, fugal manual parts continue non-stop throughout the piece, while the pedal only comes in every so often with an ascending step-wise theme, representing the steadfast belief the faithful have. The music is bold and constantly fascinating, and, at the same time, the piece never loses this solid, grounded aspect. I play the work on the large Plenum (Principal chorus) of the organ with a deep German-style reed stop in the pedal.