Program Notes



Mozart called the organ “the king of instruments” and it was by far the most complex invention to predate the industrial revolution. Bach, as one of the great virtuoso organists of his day, developed a fierce reputation as a mercenary “test driver” to take new instruments out for a spin and see where they needed some tweaking before the builder could be paid for his work. His son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, also a famous composer, wrote:

“He said in jest, ‘Above all I must know whether the organ has a good lung,’ and to establish this, he pulled out all the stops and played with as many registers as possible. This often caused organ builders to go quite pale with shock”

You need a special kind of brain to play a keyboard instrument. Sometimes you need to play two completely different rhythms with each hand or have to track a melody from right to the left while simultaneously playing accompaniment in the other fingers. Add to that having to strategically pull the stops on the organ. (An organ stop is a set of pipes controlled by the dozens of knobs or tabs above the keyboard. The loudest sound is created when every rank of pipe is brought into play by activating all the buttons, literally “pulling out all the stops”). Unhelpfully, most composers don’t indicate the specific stops you should pull - which makes sense anyway given that instruments differ hugely one to the other. Then add having to play melodies with both your hands and feet and an entire building as your resonating chamber and it seems quite impossible to perform anything let alone a massive work like this one.

In the 19th Century the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BMV 565 was on the verge of extinction with the last copy a single manuscript made as a copying exercise by an organ student for his teacher who had studied with Bach. The first publication was in 1833, forty-eight years after Bach’s death. Mendelssohn performed it in a celebrated concert on August 6th 1840, almost exactly 176 years ago. Schumann praised the work and Liszt added it to his standard repertoire until Leopold Stokowski immortalized it with his orchestral arrangement in the Disney film Fantasia in 1940. A Toccata (Italian for “to touch”) is a virtuoso display piece. A Fugue is a multi-voice composition characterized by the same melody entering one after another (“Row, Row, Your Boat” is a specialized type of fugue called a canon).

Program notes by David Yang