Sabbath musical delight: J. S. Bach, Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major BWV 564. An Italian Concerto for organ

This is one of my favorite organ pieces ever, especially in this performance by the late, lamented French organist Michel Chapuis.

A “toccata” was meant to be a combination warmup and virtuoso showcase piece. The name comes from the Italian verb “toccare” which means both “to touch” and “to play [an instrument]”.

This piece was probably composed during Bach’s Weimar period, when he was employed as chapel organist [later also as Konzertmeister] at the ducal palace at Weimar. This was also the period when, in the palace’s well-stocked music library, he first encountered the music of the Italian baroque masters: Corelli, Legrenzi, Albinoni,… and Vivaldi.

The toccata begins with a playful, whimsical keyboard motive with large leaps, followed by brisk passagework and then a “look, mom, no hands!” extended pedal solo that probably only Bach himself could play in his day (and even today, almost nobody can do it cleanly at the brisk tempo Chapuis takes.

Then, after this long, virtuosic and humorous introduction, starts what sounds like Bach’s version of a 3-movement Vivaldi concerto for strings. The first movement is in 4/4, brisk and full of life. Then follows a pensive adagio in A minor with the left hand and the pedals accompanying a highly melodic voice in the right hand, that I can imagine as both a solo violin or a solo oboe. After the adagio ends follows an even slower grave section using startlingly complex harmonies a century ahead of their time, eventually modulating back to C major. The fugue strikes up a brisk, infectious dance rhythm in 6/8 without sacrificing polyphony.

Have a good weekend, shabbat shalom, and enjoy!

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