Summer Reruns–Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

(This is the one of my posts that has gotten the most hits.)

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.

Debussy’s beautiful 3:28 for the Tuesday – May 5th

I’m in hot Florida this weekend, so it’s nice listening to this “cool” music.

One journey to classical music

Before Tuesday makes you run, please use 3:28 for this beautiful, somehow hypnotizing and relaxing piece. Claude Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” – s’il vous plaît!

More on Debussy in

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188 de ani de la premiera Simfoniei a 9-a de Beethoven

188 Year Anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th. What a gift from the gods.

I love it all, but the 3rd Movement is exquisite and often overshadowed by the 4th.

Masterwork: Aeolus Quartet Plays Bartók 6

I feel ashamed for not listening to Bartok’s String Quartets until 40 years after a college friend told me about them. It’s shameful because my father was Hungarian and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and his Roumanian Danses are two of my favorite works.

Here’s #1:

Bartok’s String Quartet #1

Here’s a great post on Bartok.

Our Invisible Cities

Hungarian militiamen parade alongside a German tank in Budapest, 1944. Source: Wikimedia Hungarian militiamen parade alongside a German tank in Budapest, 1944. Source: Wikimedia

MASTERWORK: The Aeolus Quartet Performs Bartók’s 6th String Quartet

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center

Quartets by Haydn or Mozart are straightforward affairs.These works can be difficult to play and interpret, but at least know both the composers and the musical tradition that they represent. Move even a bit east of Vienna, though, and the familiar rhythms of the West become choppy and asymmetrical, strange Magyar harmonies matched with even stranger accents and beats.

The Aeolus Quartet (currently in residence at Juilliard) discussed their own struggles with the Hungarian tradition in Bartók’s melancholy Quartet No. 6 this past Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Public Library for the Performing Arts. Inspired by a performance in Cleveland that matched Bartók chamber works with songs by a Hungarian folk ensemble, the…

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A to Z: Z is for Zacara da Teramo

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is the 26th and final day of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempted to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I curated a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).The last composer in this series is Zacara da Teramo (estimated birth between 1350 & 1360 and death between 1413 & 1416).

Though Antonius Berardi Andree de Teramo is the composer’s Latin name, he was referred to, though not by himself, as “Zacara.” This is kind of sad, considering Zacara means “a small thing of little value,” which was a cruel reference to his small stature. He rose to great heights, however, composing music that was the bridge between Medieval and Renaissance music. He came from Teramo and seems to have composed all his life. In mid-life, he went to Rome where he became a Papal secretary to Pope Boniface IX until 1404. He served the next two Popes, Innocent VII and Gregory XII during the Western Schism. His music shifted around this time and in addition to sacred music, he also wrote secular pieces that were highly satirical.

Another odd fact about him was that he only had a total of 10 digits on his two feet and hands. This is documented in a painting and in certain documents.

Here are two pieces to round out the month. Enjoy.

Ciaramella by Zacara de Teramo

Zachara : Credo Deus Deorum

The composer’s Wikipedia entry: Zacara da Teramo

A to Z: Y is for Polly Young

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is day 25 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Polly Young (1749-1799).

Polly Young came from a well-known British musical family and was born in Covent Garden. A prodigy in voice and harpsichord, I guess that would have made her “Young Polly Young.” Sorry.

At the age of 6 she traveled to Ireland with her aunt Cecilia who was married to the composer Thomas Arne, and made her debut singing in an opera, Eliza, by her uncle.

Cecilia Maria Barthélemon – Sonata in E, Op. 1/3

The composer’s Wikipedia entry: Polly Young

A to Z: X is for Spyridon Xyndas

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is day 24 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Spyridon Xyndas (1812-1896).

Spyridon Xyndas came from the island of Corfu and after completing his music studies there, he moved to Naples and then Milan where he continued. Returning to Corfu he was one of the founders of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu, where he taught for many years. He composed operas, but only one is extant, the rest of his work purportedly “destroyed during the 1943 Luftwaffe bombing of the Municipal Theatre of Corfu.”

DIMITRI PLATANIAS singing “The poor soul sat sighing” by Spyridon Xyndas

The composer’s Wikipedia entry: Spyridon Xyndas

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