Toccata in C minor, BWV 911

March 19, 2023 – Rachel Naomi Kudo, piano

Bach composed seven manualiter toccatas, BWV 910–916, whose designation toccata refers to pieces that display a keyboardist’s dexterity and manualiter means “hands only” as opposed to those requiring pedals. Therefore these pieces were to be played on a keyboard instrument other than organ—such as the harpsichord in the eighteenth century. Bach never collected these toccatas under a single title, but they represent the culmination of the genre, begun in the sixteenth century and in Bach’s case likely influenced by early Baroque German models comprised of several distinct contrasting sections. Precise dating has proved impossible, but scholars typically designate a range of “?before 1708” to “before 1714,” which places them before or during his tenure at the court of Weimar.

The date often given for the D major Toccata, BWV 912, is “before 1710,” with an early version possibly dating from c. 1707. That could have been during Bach’s year in Mühlhausen, June 1707–June 1708, or in Arnstadt where he was organist from 1703 to 1707. In June 1708 Bach took up the post of court organist at Weimar, where Duke Wilhelm Ernst is said to have greatly enjoyed Bach’s playing, so it is likely that Bach himself performed his toccatas for his employer. It is equally possible that they could have been played by one or more of his talented students, but there is no specific evidence that he intended them for teaching, as he did with other works (mentioned above in connection with the French Suites).

The D major Toccata, like the other six, closes with a fugue and like all but one (G major, BWV 916) opens with an improvisatory prelude. This brief lively opening is striking for its similarity to the D major organ Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532, which may date from around the same time, especially as to its to ascending scales, which Bach extends locally and employs in dramatic descents in the extended Adagio transition to the first fugue. Prior to that, however, the prelude brings on a captivating Allegro that unfolds with rondo-like recurring passages. Modulatory excursions into the minor mode and similar journeys in the ensuing recitative-like Adagio prepare for the first fugue in F-sharp minor. This fugue offers a somewhat introspective exploration of that key with three expositions of the simultaneous subject/countersubject pair, seamlessly connected by two brief episodes. Following another dramatic declamatory transition, the final fugue gallops along in 6/16 meter much like a perpetual-motion gigue until its final arresting bars.
For the C minor Toccata, BWV 911, scholars suggest a date of “before 1714,” which was the year Bach added the title and rank of Konzertmeister to the post of court organist that he had begun at Weimar in 1708. Thus its earliest performers were likely the same as for the D major Toccata above and the other manualiter toccatas, that is, Bach himself or possibly his sons or students.

The C minor Toccata begins with an improvisatory, ornate-style introduction, followed by a relatively short Adagio, maintaining a lamenting mood. The main portion of the piece consists of a massive fugue, interrupted by a recitative-like passage, after which Bach introduces a second subject and launches into a double fugue (treatment of his two subjects in contrapuntal combination). A majestic adagio passage brings Bach’s mighty work to a close.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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