I am reworking a Bach Toccata I learned a few years back in preparation for my concert with Molly Tomlinson for the October 11th Ladies Musical Club concert. "Toccata" literally means "touched" and refers to the virtuosic nature of the music's fingerwork. Originally conceived for early keyboard instruments such as clavichord, harpsichord, and organ, the toccata is not necessarily a "piano" piece. However, I believe that if Bach were to live in our time, he would use the piano to its fullest extent, most certainly employing it in the performance of his toccatas.
This particular toccata in C minor (BWV 911) carries the potential of all sorts of tone colors using the piano. Parts of it remind me of a harpsichord, while other parts seem distinctly written for organ as Bach layers sound upon sound on top of a pedal tone. I love the contrasts of fast fingerwork and rich chordal harmonies. Because Bach did so much writing for the church service, I wonder whether this particular work was used during the liturgy. In fact, toccatas that predated Bach were used during the Roman Catholic liturgy as a way to set the pitch for the choir! In the 16th-18th centuries the toccata was also often mentioned as "a piece that test[ed] the tuning, touch, and expressive possibilities of the instrument while the performer [warmed up] his fingers" (from Abigail Mace's dissertation, noted below) - I love this! So often as a pianist, I come to a new instrument on stage and have to familiarize myself with it quickly, sometimes without having rehearsed on it at all before the performance. What a great idea to have a "warm-up" piece to get used to the piano as the audience listens in!
Of course, Bach's toccatas may not have served either of these functions. They came later on - really, his compositions were the "peak" of the form - and because of their extended length and the use of a wide variety of material, were probably meant primarily to be used as teaching pieces.
In any case, having this knowledge of the toccata form that predated Bach's works feeds my imagination and I happily go back to the keyboard ready to imitate the harpsichord and organ sounds in my head even more fully, and to expand on the showmanship of the technical feats embedded in the work. I hope you will come listen to my interpretation at the LMC concert in October! In the meantime, here is a wonderful take on it by Martha Argerich.
*Here is the link to the wonderful dissertation by Abigail Mace on "Style and Interpretation in the Seven Keyboard Toccatas of J.S. Bach" (click on the .pdf file listed in the left column after you reach the site).
Note: This post first appeared in "September News from Cori Belle," a monthly newsletter that goes out to all my subscribers filled with upcoming events, piano news, and links to great articles about all things piano! If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, please go to my Contact page and sign up!