Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach is another one of those great composers whose music can serve as a starting point for someone interested in learning about classical music. I use the term generic term “classical” here to refer to all “serious” music, because as most of you know, Bach falls into the baroque period. Confused yet? I think I can be forgiven, because The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music lists among its definition for “classical”, “music of permanent value, not ephemeral.” The technical definition is to describe music that is concerned with form and proportion rather than emotion, and usually refers to the 18th and early 19th century. The Oxford manages to get a dig in at us hoi polloi: “Amongst less educated people, music with no ‘tune’ in it.” Those whacky Brits. How can you not love a country that gave us Shakespeare and baked beans on toast?


Baroque refers to the period of music immediately preceding classical, that is the 17th and early 18th century, usually from Germany and Austria. Baroque, from the French meaning “bizarre,” was applied to the fanciful wrought-gold and cherub adorned architecture of that time period. Bach was probably the most prolific composers (in more ways than one) of this period: he produced countless works for the organ, chorus, instruments and orchestra—-plus 23 sons. That doesn’t sound too impressive, except for the sons, but consider this, he wrote a cantata (in this case a sung mass) for every day of the year!

I usually think of music from this time period as being either stately—like Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos—or meticulous like Bach’s works for solo instruments such as the harpsichord, violin, viola and of course the organ. Bach wrote a lot of organ music, having been a church organist and director of the school of the church of Saint Thomas in Leipzig.

The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is probably one of Bach’s most famous and accessible pieces. It gets played a lot around Halloween in the U.S., because some idiot used it the soundtrack for some horror movie years ago. The opening part, the toccata, for that reason now sounds ominous and full of sturm und drang. The fugue is a form of composition that has several “voices” or melodies that start in succession, almost like a round, but then which interweave with one another according to strict rules of harmony. This is why the music to me sounds meticulous or mathematical. The modern philosopher, Douglas Hofstader, wrote a huge tome called Godell, Escher, and Bach in which he analyzes the structure of the fugue, almost ad nauseum.

Another place where the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor turns up is in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Leopold Stokowski orchestrated the piece and the Disney cartoonist used the technique of aurora borealis to represent the different voices of the fugue. It’s sort of boring really, and to my mind, kind of emasculates this piece.

Of course, as an adolescent, I was drawn to the toccata, but eventually I came to love the fugue as well, which is actually quite beautiful and sweet compared to the strong emotions in the toccata. In my high school French class, I met a fellow student, named John Claeys, who was a gifted artist and could play the organ by ear. One of his hobbies was collecting decorative molding from abandoned Victorian houses in our county. His basement bedroom looked like something out of a horror film itself, with its dark paneling. John had even found an old upright pump organs on one of his forays and installed this in his lair. He was able to figure out the fingering for part of the toccata and took great pleasure wheezing it out on that old organ.

John and I made a horror movie for our French class with his dad’s super eight camera. I played a crazed madman, who at one point runs out of control in my mothers black 1968 Volkwagen beetle and dirves it over a cliff. John sacrificed one of his plastic car models for the actual crash and burning of the bug. The only thing it had to do with French class were the hand-written dialog cards, which said things like sacre bleu! Of course, we used the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for the soundtrack.

In 1972 or thereabouts, an organist named Virgil Fox, decided to adapt techniques from The Grateful Dead and give concerts with psychedelic light shows. He came to a small private college in my home town and I dragged John along to the concert with me. It was absolutely captivating.

Fox must have thought he was the reincarnation of Franz Lizst: he strode onstage wearing a black cape, which he whirled off as he sat down at his instrument. He played a huge five-manual (keyboard) organ and between pieces he would explain to the audience exactly how each piece was constructed and how complex it was. One piece, I think it was the Gigue Fugue, required him to play four melodies, one with each appendage simultaneously. The crowd—and I—went wild and after he finished he played a number of encores. After each set of applause would die down, I would stand up and scream “Play Toccata and Fugue in D Minor!”. After his fourth encore, and dripping with sweat, he yelled back “OK!” Needless to say, I was transported when he played it, and though somewhat embarrassed by my behavior after all these years, I still enjoy this piece.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Training Professional. Specialties include Personal Memoir, fiction and non-fiction about Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, & what interests me

20 Responses to Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

  1. Diana says:

    I have been wanting to hear this again, for a long time. I think we started listening to Bach around the time of Emerson Lake + Palmer… (perhaps we’re close in age…), all of that being my older brother’s influence. We had killer stereo systems + would turn this WAY up. (And carry on with Saturday cleaning, etc.)

    Great post. Some stupid questions: are the pedals like individual keys ? If so, I never realized that feet were involved ! How do the stops function ? (How would you like to have the job of stop puller !?) Why short, layered keyboards instead of one long one ?

    I want to read/learn more about the forms. Thanks for illumination. :)

    Love this video as it shows exactly what’s going on.

    • mikeslayen says:

      From a guitarists memory of studying music in college… I believe the foot pedals are a whole other ‘keyboard’…Those organists get a workout. The stops are used to change pipes used and/or pipe lengths creating different timbres(sounds)

    • Yes, the pedals are an extra keyboard for your feet, and primarily add bass to a piece. As for the stops, each stop is an individual sound that controls one pipe. By pulling various stops, you can mix sounds and textures to suit the piece you are playing. Higher sounds are played with short pipes on the keyboard, and low sounds are played with the pedals, so one long keyboard isn’t necessary. In fact, having many keyboards allows for more variation, since you can mix sounds for individual keyboards and then quickly switch to another keyboard for another sound. And if you want to get fancy, you can play with one hand on one keyboard, and the other hand on another. I have played classical piano for over a decade now, and pipe organ for only a few years, but I can tell you that pipe organs are waaaaay more exciting in so many ways! Especially when you play one in a real cathedral! Yeesss!

      • kurtnemes says:

        Thank you for the explanation. It must be an amazing instrument to play and it must be a transcendent experience playing in a space like a cathedral. Wonderful to have you on board.

      • Diana says:

        That is all very cool. I had no idea… have been listening to lots of Bach, and the different organ sounds. When it’s high notes, it sounds like a caliope (or merry-go-round ?) (And church !) But it’s the low tones that I love, especially in this fugue/toccata. A keyboard for feet: wow.

  2. kurtnemes says:

    You’re right. I graduated from high school in 1973. ELP and Yes had great, classically trained keyboardists who wove that into their songs, or sometimes just flat out played it amplified. Wish I could answer the questions about stop puller. It would look good on one’s CV, no? “Stop Puller for Karl Richter.” Best

  3. Pingback: Downtown today and more Bach « pinknoyze

  4. mikeslayen says:

    The Godel, Escher Bach books is a really hard read, interesting though!

  5. Thank you for following me. I too have a love affair with music and I know I will enjoy reading your blog. Have a happy new year!

  6. Todd says:

    What a great post, and thank you for following us! We are planning some Bach posts around his birthday on the 31st; he is probably my favorite composer. The concert you described certainly sounds memorable. Isn’t it great when you get to experience classical music in a non-stuffy environment? Also love the British definitions of classical–certainly not normative at all… You can always trust them to have a view on what’s “proper.” Yet they also gave us Lennon and McCartney, Page and Plant! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  7. Pingback: J.S.Bach-Toccata e Fuga BWV 565-Karl Richter | Mainspring's Music

  8. please send me something scientific about Bach for scienceandartblog.com

  9. very informative post and bits of wit t/o :-)

  10. susanissima says:

    I adore this toccata and fugue and was so lucky to see Virgil Fox perform it at the Fillmore in San Francisco. You’re right. He was amazing! Thanks for liking my blog, by the way. I’m going to follow yours because it’s just so unique and you’re a wonderful writer.

    • kurtnemes says:

      Thank you for the compliment. Wow. Fox at the Fillmore. Was that when he had the psychedelic light show? That was such a blend of strong cultural currents at the time–young hippies listening to Bach. All the best.

  11. leelotchka44 says:

    Hi Kurt – thanks for following my “Awakening to Love” and the Hilaryon saga, where Bach plays a big part! If you print “Full Moon” in the search field you will see how this composition saves the boy-Hitler …well, all is impossible on Hilaryon:) writing that story, the Toccata and fuge “came” and insisted of being used in the story. The description of how it healed the small Hitler was a huge experience for me – I felt it all over. – I love the way you write – no preaching :) but teaching in a very entertaining way. We seem to have the wacky crazy part in common. All the best to you!

    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks very much for the nice compliment and following my blog. I’m fascinated by your work. My wife is a writer and has written and performed plays on healing from abuse as a child. My own journey the past 31 years was very challenging and it has taken me a long time to awaken to love. So I look forward to your posts. Best

      • leelotchka44 says:

        I should let you know then, that “Awakening to Love” is a presentation of my work and the books I have written – and they describe how to awaken to love – and the Hilaryon Stories just came out of the heart:)

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