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Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: Percussion I (Indian drum, glockenspiel, small Indian drum); Percussion II (side drum, xylophone, Indian drum, tenor drum); Percussion III (side drum, suspended cymbal); Percussion IV (tenor drum, chimes, claves, one maraca, suspended cymbal); Percussion V (timpani, small gong); Percussion VI (bass drum, large gong)
First Los Angeles Philharmonic Performance: February 13, 1990, David Alan Miller conducting
In the 1930s, avant-garde composer John Cage approached Chávez and asked him to compose a piece for the percussion ensemble with which Cage was touring the West Coast. Chávez obliged, composing the Toccata that we hear tonight. Unfortunately, Cage’s ensemble found themselves unable to play the opening section, which calls for long, sustained drum rolls by all players, and therefore never performed the piece. It was not until 1948 that the Toccata received its premiere, with members of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México (of which Chávez was founding director) as soloists. Since then, the piece has become a staple of the percussion repertoire, regularly performed on collegiate percussion ensemble programs (with the roll section intact).
Traditionally, a toccata (derived from the Italian word tocarre, or “to touch”) was a virtuoso piece for a keyboard or plucked instrument, designed to showcase the player’s facility. Instead of fast-moving melodic passages, Chávez’s Toccata utilizes advanced rhythmic interplay and extended techniques on multiple drums and gongs. The first and last of the Toccata’s three movements follow a sonata form in which Chávez explores the sound potential of the battery, writing long, layered rolls, interlocking syncopated patterns, and a section in which the players are instructed to cover the drum heads with a cloth or chamois (denoted coperto or “covered”). The slow inner movement – scored for non-pitched metallic instruments, plus glockenspiel and xylophone – is rhythmically simple, featuring small broken intervals on the two melodic instruments. In Chávez’s own words, the Toccata “was written as an experiment in orthodox percussion instruments,” and makes for an enduring example of melodic, thematic writing for a seemingly non-pitched instrumental family.