Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BVW 565

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        The marvelous resources of the nineteenth-century symphony orchestra serve the broadest musical imaginative purposes with amazing facility. Although the twentieth century added a broad array of percussion instruments, the fundamental sound resources of the orchestra were in place by around 1850. During the 1800s the instrumental colors available in the orchestra grew tremendously as a result of the influence of the opera orchestra. Composers of opera were studiously incorporating new instruments into their works to heighten the dramatic atmosphere on the stage. French composers such as Meyerbeer led the way, followed by Wagner and others. A short list of newly-introduced instruments includes the tuba, trumpets and horns with valves, the bass clarinet, English horn, keyboard instruments, multiple harps, thundersheets—the list goes on. At the same time, imaginative orchestrators were assiduously exploring the deep resources of the string family by pushing the limits of the higher register, developing a variety of figurations, using special effects such as multiple stops, playing with the wood of the bow (rather than the strings), pizzicato, harmonics, and novel combinations of divisi strings. And these are just a few of the deep well of possibilities that serve composers and orchestrators. What is more, and perhaps most important, is that these resources were varied and rich enough to serve not only nineteenth-century art, as well as the radical changes of musical style of the twentieth century, but still seem without limits of possibility in our new century.

        With this as background, why should we listen to a twentieth-century arrangement for orchestra of an eighteenth-century masterpiece for organ: Bach’s venerable Toccata and Fugue in D Minor? The short answer, of course, is that Leopold Stokowski, flamboyant showman and longtime conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, ran a cottage industry in the last century making splashy arrangements for symphony orchestra of music from other media that showcased his “Fabulous Philadelphia Sound.” Among them were several of J. S. Bach’s organ works, arrangements of which he thought would better acquaint the public with these masterpieces; today, of course, long after the Baroque revival, this is superfluous. But, these arrangements were all the rage earlier on—they were a hit in the movie, “The Big Broadcast of 1937,” where Stokowski, flowing mane and all, played himself (of course). Later we are familiar with the Toccata’s appearance in Walt Disney’s motion picture, Fantasia.

        So, finally, why do we still perform this hoary warhorse, of dubious artistic origin? Well, the answer is simple—it is a sonic feast, and just plainly a lot of innocent fun. The music’s drama is enhanced immeasurably by the deep resources of the symphony orchestra. Clearly, Stokowski did a magnificent job in showing us another dimension of Bach’s timeless music. This is no time for pedants and snobs. Enjoy!

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan