We all lost an hour when the clocks went forward last night. And, today, Crotchety Man slipped a few centuries back in time. It’s a big leap from Jimi Hendrix to J. S. Bach but it’s not so hard, really. These days, all it takes is a few clicks of a mouse.
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) has become Bach’s best known organ piece, although there is some doubt about its authenticity. It was probably composed around 1730 and may have existed only as a single manuscript until its first publication in 1833. It has some characteristics that are atypical of Bach but statistical analysis has not found a more likely composer.
The pipe organ was the synthesiser of the 18th century. One man, sat at an organ, could make more noise than a whole orchestra, more than enough to fill a cathedral. Sat there he could generate the rumble of thunder or the chirruping of song birds. He could imitate brass, woodwind and string sections, switching between different timbres at the push of an organ stop. Pipe organs were big, powerful and awesomely beautiful instruments.
The popularity of BWV 565 comes, I think, from its exploitation of the particular qualities of the organ.
It opens with a short trumpet fanfare followed by an arpeggio that builds like five male voices preparing to sing an opera: bass, baritone, tenor, counter-tenor, contralto. As each voice joins in the volume swells and the chord becomes increasingly dissonant, a sequence of diminished intervals sending a chill up the spine. The opera singers perform a few voice exercises, give us that dissonant chord again and swing smoothly into a dainty aria. The piece is only a dozen bars in and already we have three contrasting styles.
The opera singers converse with each other for a while and then, as the toccata ends, they leave the stage.
When the organ pipes breathe again it is with the interwoven lines of a fugue. The organ has become a choir of dragons with lusty voices that dance about in the great halls of our ancestors. Simple peasants that we are, we can only stand, watch and marvel at what we see and hear. The dragons dance a while for our entertainment – there is no threat in their movements and no fear in our hearts. When they are done the dragons disappear in soft puffs of smoke and we are alone again.
The imagery, of course, is mine. This is what Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sounds like to me. It takes me back to the days when I sang in the church choir a few decades ago, further back to the eighteenth century when it was composed and way, way back to the days of legend when dragons walked the earth. You see, the pipe organ is not just a versatile musical instrument, it is a time machine for the imagination. And that reminds me… It’s time to wind the clocks on an hour and welcome Summer Time.