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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

11. Touching Touch-pieces.
Bach's Seven Toccatas for Harpsichord

'We are grateful to the player for her skill and sensitivity ...'


The toccata is a musical convention that flourished most vigorously in the age of the High Baroque: which is not surprising, since the word toccata means a 'touch-piece' through which a keyboard player vaunts his virtuosity, usually on a harpsichord or organ. This virtuosity is both touchingly emotional in the 'free' sections that follow the vagaries of subjective passions; and touchingly technical in the digital dexterity the music calls for. Though this makes the pieces pridefully exhibitionistic it also entails, in 'classical' baroque music, an equilibrium between quasi-improvisatory licence in the 'free' sections and a rage for order in the contrapuntal fugues and fully developed fugues. High Baroque man indulged his senses to their highest point, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that his manly virtu could steer safely through the savagest chaos and the most ambiguous incertitudes.

Most people will agree that J S Bach composed the greatest keyboard toccatas precisely because he, more than any composer, was master of maximal emotional intensity, countered by acute intellectual lucidity. Significantly, his first three toccatas are early works written between his twentieth and twenty fifth year, in a style displaying dazzling youthful audacity, usually in turbulent minor keys. All follow a similar pattern, juxtaposing 'free' sections -- in rhythms derived from operatic recitative that recurrently explode into whirligig scales and arpeggios -- with fugato sections of varying degrees of formal rigidity. The earliest toccata -- in D minor BWV 913 -- was probably composed during his Arnstadt years, and is the longest because it is the least disciplined. D minor was traditionally regarded as a key both 'obscure' and a shade perilous, as was the Dorian mode it derived from; the piece falls, with the impetuosity of youth, into more contrarious sections than does any of the later toccatas. At first, whirling scales and broken arpeggios scamper across the keyboard, hopefully tethered by tonic pedal notes in the bass. After a cadenza closing on a dominant triad, the music's insouciance is tempered by a grave adagio in four parts, riddled with dissonant suspensions painfully resolved in a decorated cadence in the tonic major.

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Copyright © 18 August 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK






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