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Composed: c. 1705
Length: c. 11 minutes
In his own lifetime, Bach was lionized as a keyboard virtuoso - feared even. In 1717 he challenged the French player Louis Marchand to a musical duel at the court of Dresden and won by default when Marchand snuck out of town the night before the contest. "It would be wrong to conclude from this defeat of Marchand in Dresden that he must have been a poor musician," observed the contemporary critic Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg. "Did not as great a one as Handel avoid every opportunity of confronting the late Bach?"
Bach's formidable reputation was built on works such as the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, probably the best known of all his organ music. This is a piece that emphasizes the rhapsodic, improvisatory elements of the toccata style. Usually strict counterpoint such as a fugue serves as an intensifier, but here the technical and harmonic stress of the opening is such that the fugue actually relaxes the music. There is really no break between the toccata and the fugue, and even within the fugue there are dramatic flourishes between thematic entrances. After the fugue Bach adds another intense free section, marked recitativo, to be played with great expression and rhythmic freedom, something also indicated throughout by the use of uncommonly wide tempo markings for the era, ranging from adagissimo to prestissimo.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.