1713: Bach: Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor

TUESDAY, December 1, 2020 – 10:57 AM

Bach: Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor, age 28

Bach worked in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, during which he composed most of his organ works including BWV 538, and the truth is that no one knows exactly when he wrote this. I just used 1713 as a mid point of when it could have been written.

BWV means “Bach Werke-Verzeichnis“, which simply means “Bach Work-Catalogue”. In other word, it’s an attempt to list all the works Bach composed and put them in order. It’s an absolutely joke, and I hate this system, which I totally ignore as antiquated and useless. There is another more famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” that everyone knows, and that one is linked to Fantasia. This one has the nickname “Dorian”.

Marco Den Toom, my pick

It’s only the toccata, which I suppose is a huge minus, but for me perhaps not because I don’t like the fugue of this as much as the toccata, and I see no universal law that says, “Thou must play everything in a composition.” I know this is a modern organ. I guess I’ve learned that much. It has more of what I associate with a “theater organ”, which just means it sounds different and seems not to be well liked by organ purists. Maybe the older organs sound better, or more historically correct, or more traditional, but here is why I like this one and don’t like the others. It’s because it starts so soft, with sounds that for me are like delicate flutes. This for organ is the equivalent of pp, and it gives a gigantic space to build. Tthe first time I heard this, I just said: “Wow! This is cool!”. That was about two years ago. Fast forward to almost the end of 2020. I still feel the same way. It builds and builds, and that means drama, also suspense because the first time you hear it you don’t know what is going to happen. Supposedly Bach notated manual changes for the organist, an unusual practice in the day as well as in Bach’s organ output, and maybe he gave more directions. And maybe other organists follow it all. I don’t care. I hate hearing this start out ff, rattling my teeth, with nowhere to go. To me as a musician this is moronic, anticlimactic and boring. So my original impression from two years ago remains, and every other performance I’ve heard of this leaves me utterly cold. I do wish, however, he has also played the fugue because if he did the same kind of architecture there – and build – I’d be hooked on the fugue too.

Michel Chapuis, loud and louder and still louder and BORING

This is a huge sound. But what organ is he using, and why? What gets the best sound, or the most historically appropriate sound? What is unique about this, special? Why should I listen this rather than another version? So let me start out with a huge complaint. OK, I’m not an organist, and what I don’t know about organ could fill about 10,000 books, but I don’t like this, and I want to take a moment to explain why. It’s loud. It’s loud from the start, and to me it just keeps getting louder, which reminds me of a lot of rock music. I HATE – let me repeat that – I HATE music that is unimaginative dynamically. Finally there is something quiet in the fugue, but by that time my attention is gone. I’m bored, and I wonder why I am bored when the music is obviously magnificent. So my conclusion, fair or not, is that this organist has failed, and immediately I never want to hear him again – EVER – even if the next thing is musical, because I have labelled him a musical moron in mind, so I’m done. For this reason I loathe this performance. It ruined the experience for me. Is it a wonderful organ? I don’t care. Maybe the fugue gets better. In fact, it seems to. But the whole thing is now ruined for me.

Van Doeselaar, again all loud and sharp

This is not in D minor. It’s in Eb minor. Why? Because unless there is a recording mistake, which I doubt with this group, “Netherlands Bach Society”, the organ itself is quite high in pitch, 100% possible. I like the shape of this recording better than the one with Michel Chapuis, but for me it still does not have enough variety and it gets too loud, too fast. I want a build in the toccata, and I don’t get one. For me, with a terribly limited understanding of organ, its seems you have all these choices, like a huge orchestra, and these players just don’t use them.

A virtuoso organ work…

This is from the Baroque period, J.S. Bach. Here you see a player, Marco Den Toom, jumping back and forth over three keyboards, and his feet are playing about as fast most people can move their fingers. You may not think of playing the organ as athletic, but the coordination it takes to do this is beyond belief.

The nickname, “Dorian”, is not from Bach. It is from the key signature used, which has no sharps or flats. The notes D E F G A B C D would be the Dorian mode. Bach’s music is clearly in D minor. He just chose not to put Bb in the key signature.

8 thoughts on “1713: Bach: Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor

  1. I’ve been wanting to tell you about this YouTube channel called “Sideways”. He makes really good video essays about music. His newest video is about this. The video is about why this, and most organ music, is considered evil. He other videos are mostly about leit motifs and music in movies. Here’s the video about organ music but I really recommend the rest of his channel too.

  2. I enjoyed this piece very much. I like organ music. It has an ethereal quality.

    When I volunteered at a day care center someone played popular tunes on an organ and we sang along. I thought he was good at it. It seems like a difficult instrument to play.

  3. Sounds amazing but the actions he did to play it is even more amazing cause of playing fast with his hands while at the same time using his feet while not looking down to see the notes he was playing. I was dazed while seeing this.

  4. I wanted to understand “The notes D E F G A B C D would be the Dorian mode. That is not what Bach wrote at all.” …..though I assumed it meant he did not just use the white notes.

    To that end, I happened to run into the performance below and the reason I’m posting it is that we often have a clear view of the keyboard (and pedals, which are configured like a keyboard, it seems) and we can see that black keys are pressed.

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