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Published on Apr 29, 2013
Toccata in F Major, BWV 540 Johann Sebastian Bach
Dan Campolieta, organ Recorded live at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Hartford, CT April 3, 2013
The longest of Bach's extant organ preludes, there is some question as to when this piece was actually composed, and if indeed it should be coupled with the Fugue in F Major, BWV 540/2, which is not nearly as grand and complex as the toccata. Due to this uncertainty, the toccata is often performed separately, as is the case here.
The work begins with a canon between the hands, with the right hand leading, over an F pedal tone in the bass. This is followed by an impressive pedal solo. After the piece's first cadence, Bach repeats the canon in inversion, with the left hand leading, now in the key of C Major. The second pedal solo ends with the hands rejoining with off-beat chords containing unexpected harmonies. These chords will serve as important transitional material for the rest of the piece.
The remainder of the toccata is joyous in character and has the feeling of an unending song, as cadences are rare and the piece is continually spinning in new directions. A new theme is introduced containing similar pitches to the opening canon, but with a more upward trajectory. This becomes a ritornello which leads through the circle of fifths. At the end of the episode, Bach returns to the transitional chords, leading to an unusual cadence (V to V 4/2 of Neopolitan) which also navigates through a B-A-C-H motif in the pedal.
Following is a trio based on the opening canon theme. At this point, all the material for the piece has been introduced. Bach continues to alternate between ritornello episodes and this trio material. Bach's contrapuntal mastery shines through because each time the trio section occurs, the parts are inverted so that by the end of the piece, each hand and the feet have played each of the three musical lines in their respective registers. From a technical standpoint, the pedal parts in these sections are some of the most difficult organ excerpts in the entire repertoire to perform in context.
The final ritornello episode is cut short and leads to a long coda beginning in B-flat and then transitioning to a long C pedal. For the last time, we hear the transitional chords, the V 4/2 of Neapolitan cadence, the B-A-C-H motif, and the final cadence in F Major.
Combining elements of the North German pedal toccata, Italian ritornello, and flawless counterpoint, it is no surprise why this piece is one of the most well-known of Bach's works.
Performed on the 1961 Aeolian-Skinner with 68 ranks at historic Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, CT. Dan Campolieta has served as Organist and Associate Music Director at Asylum Hill Congregational Church since 2007, and is also a composer and jazz pianist.