Decoding Bach 3: Stringing Along

By Argent, Mark | Musical Times, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Decoding Bach 3: Stringing Along


Argent, Mark, Musical Times


MARK ARGENT adds a further layer to the debate about Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor

IN 1981 Peter Williams produced a startling suggestion: that one of the most famous pieces of organ music, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, might have originally been written for a solo stringed instrument. I Although the idea seemed audacious, his transcription for solo violin, broadcast on Radio 3 and published by Faber Music, made a great deal of musical sense, and has deservedly entered the violin repertoire. But Williams held open the door to the possibility that this piece might originally have been for solo cello, or five-string cello. In this article I mean to pursue the third of these options, from the perspective of having played the Toccata and Fugue on a five-string baroque cello, and prepared versions for five- and for four-string cello.2

In outline, the things which called into question the usual attributions of this piece are: (1) The earliest surviving manuscript is in the hand of Johann Ringk, who was a pupil of Bach's pupil JP Kellner. This is far enough removed from Bach to mean that we can't know whether it is a faithful copy of a work for solo organ, or of a transcription of a string piece, or indeed, by Bach at all. (2) The form and texture of the piece is highly unusual, and in particular, lacks the contrapuntal rigour usually associated with keyboard fugues by Bach. This means that there must be an extra story, whether it is that the piece is not by Bach, or not a 'normal' organ work. (3) Part of the toccata (bars 12-15), and the actual fugue subject itself, alternate a repeating note with a moving one, in a manner reminiscent of the string technique of bariolage, in which a note, usually an open string is played between each note of a melody (ex.la). On the cello the repeating note becomes the open A string, while the moving part is played on the string above (five-string cello) or below (four-string cello) (exx.lb and c). In the cello transcriptions the first statement of the fugue subject is an octave lower than for the organ (ex.2) and the repeating note again is an open A string. (4) Normally there is a dynamic interplay between subject and countersubject in a fugue, but here the energy is concentrated in the subject, with the countersubject limply shadowing it in thirds and sixths (ex.2). This is what would be expected if, in the original, a fugue had been sketched out by a solo stringed instrument playing each fugal entry in turn without supporting counterpoint (as happens in the prelude to the C minor cello suite), with the countersubject created by a transcriber simply filling in. (5) The massive chords at the end can seem rather simplistic on the organ, and the very final cadence is unusual in two ways: it is a plagal cadence, and ends in a minor chord. On the organ this is strange: why did Bach not use a perfect cadence, and follow the convention of substituting a major chord for the final minor chord (ex.3a)? In string terms, however, these chords become surprisingly effective. The plagal cadence now makes perfect sense, because it allows the use of two open strings in the penultimate chord, and that last chord itself works extremely well as a single note - and therefore neither explicitly major nor minor (ex.3b).

Other theories have also been advanced about the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Two important ones are that it might represent an exercise in musical rhetoric or that it might be an elaboration of a chorale tune. There is no doubt that the Toccata and Fugue is a highly rhetorical piece, and this surely contributes to its enduring popularity. But it is important to remember rhetoric in this case does not mean the drama obtained by using a large nineteenth-century organ for showy effect, but rather is about speaking (declaiming) through one's instrument.3 The suggestion that the Toccata and Fugue is an elaboration of a chorale tune is also an interesting possibility. …

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