The most terrifying music

Johann Ringk's copy of this famous piece.

Johann Ringk’s copy of this famous piece. No manuscript exists in Bach’s handwriting.

When I turned on public radio yesterday, I heard host Gene Schiller introduce the next piece of music as “the most terrifying ever written” — and not to my surprise, he played an orchestral transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. For many, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Halloween go together like ham and eggs.

It is perhaps the most famous organ piece of all time, and has been used in shows, movies, and cartoons. I wondered, though, what is it about this piece that people associate with it Halloween, horror, and Dracula? Is it the minor tonality, the diminished chords, the drama or what? Do you, like so many others, conjure up a mental image of a movie villain sitting down dramatically in his underground lair to play this piece? How is it that monsters had access to pipe organs?

Supposedly the first time the piece was used in a movie was in 1934, in a film called The Black Cat. Another time was in the 1962 movie, The Phantom of the Opera, when the music was associated with a character. Other movies which have included Bach’s theme are 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Raven, Rollerball, Tales from the Crypt, Fantasia, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In fact,  the Internet Movie Database ( lists 84 movies and/or television shows which quote Bach’s infamous theme, and you can see the complete list by clicking here.

Right now I am teaching this piece to three different teen-age organ students, and I am teaching it the way my teacher taught me when I was thirteen. It has its challenges, but in some ways, it is one of the easier pieces by Bach — in fact, the Toccata is included as part of the First Organ Book (edited by Wayne Leupold) I use with my students. Some people might think (especially in regard to the fugue) that it’s more scary to play than to listen to it! In case you’re interested, there is a complete Wikipedia article on this piece, mostly which challenges its Bach authorship.

For a completely different version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, here is a performance of the piece on glass harp:

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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