Oh, THAT Toccata and Fugue!

Cheeky. That’s how I would describe my performance of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor yesterday at the 50th anniversary celebration of Thurston Memorial Chapel.

Another way I’d describe it is: Gutsy. I say this because I bet it’s been 20 years since I’ve played this piece in public—and I only practiced it for about 4 days, when I decided to program it for the prelude at yesterday’s service.

So why would I program a piece I hadn’t performed in public in 20 years? Because yesterday’s program was not only a celebration of the Punahou chapel — it was supposed to be a celebration of the new Allen organ too, which had only been installed a few months ago. Yes, the 1989 Allen was replaced by another Allen (and I dare say that in another 25 years, they will replace this instrument, too—the average life expectancy of an electronic instrument.)

It was one of the first “real” organ pieces I learned while a teenager, and I still teach it to my students in the way that my teacher, Norman Söreng Wright, taught it to me. For one thing, there are two different interpretations of the opening. In the manuscript by Johannes Ringk (1717-1778), you can see that there are no flats in the key signature but there are fermatas ( ) over the last notes of each little phrase.

Johannes Ringk's manuscript

Johannes Ringk’s version

The manuscript used by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), however, places the fermatas over the rests, like the following example. This is the way I play it, and the length of the fermata depends on the acoustics of the room. If it is a very dead room, the rest is pretty short. If you are playing in a huge cathedral with many seconds of reverberation, the rests are much longer.

Mendelssohn's version.

Mendelssohn’s version.

Electronics aside, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor can rightly be called the most famous organ work ever—even people who don’t even know what an organ is have heard this piece, in cartoons, and especially, in horror or Halloween movies. Its fame started when it depicted a storm in Disney’s Fantasia. The piece has been used in over 20 Hollywood movies such as The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and La Dolce Vita.

I tell my students there are a zillion different interpretations of this piece. Here, though, is a performance which is close to mine in tempo and interpretation. Unfortunately the performer is not listed, but the organ is located in the Basilica of Leżajsk, in southern Poland. It’s a tracker organ which dates from the 17th century,

The Zeusaphone musical coil by Tesla.

The Zeusaphone musical coil by Tesla.

Hey, I was looking at performances of this piece on YouTube, and I found versions transcribed for guitar, piano, harp, flute, accordion, clarinet, horn, marimba and even a saxophone choir. (Yes, go ahead and click those links to watch videos of all the ways and instruments on which people have performed this work!) The weirdest of all was for Zeusaphone, which is a musical coil made by Tesla and looks like a lightning machine!

I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me yesterday and thanked me for programming this work. In fact several told me it was their favorite piece of music!

And as for my opinion on my performance yesterday: It went much better than I expected, thank God! About 99.8% of the notes were right!

P.S. Did you know that someone calculated that there are approximately 8000 notes in that piece!


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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One Response to Oh, THAT Toccata and Fugue!

  1. James Flores says:

    It’s one of those pieces that you’re expected to know but you’d rather learn other Bach repertoire. I recently knuckled down and learnt it as the audience love it!

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