J S BACH Toccata
Despite early questions over its provenance, this dramatic piece has since become an iconic piece of work by the prolific composer. Bridget Mermikides transcribes Toccata for classical guitar.
With its thunderous chords, this dramatic piece has become a horror-film favourite. Bridget transcribes it for classical guitar.
This month we return to the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). JS Bach was recognised as an outstanding composer and multi-instrumentalist during his lifetime, but he had to endure a gruelling work schedule. It was only around 100 years after his death when – helped by great admirers of his work such as Chopin – a significant and deep appreciation of his music emerged. His incredible control of harmony, melody and counterpoint is generally considered by many as being as close as possible to musical perfection and ‘truth’. The technical skill and range of emotions in his huge compositional output has had a profound influence, not just on western art music but also on a range of diverse genres, including modernism, metal, jazz, pop, electronica, tango and beyond. His music is also very notationally ‘pure’ in that all his pieces are transportable to practically any instrument, a quality that undoubtedly contributes to the enduring legacy of his works. He is a central figure even in classical guitar repertoire, despite the instrument as we now know it not having existed in Bach’s lifetime.
I’ve selected for this arrangement, the Toccata section from the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 written for organ. The origins of the piece are, in fact, rather unclear and some musicologists have even questioned whether it is actually written by the man himself; the only copy from near the time being made by a student of a student of Bach’s named Johannes Ringk. The general consensus, however, supports his authorship in the last few years of his life. Regardless of origins, this is an extraordinary and iconic piece of enormous drama, and it is to the church organ as perhaps Stairway is to the electric guitar. It is also – perhaps due to its dramatic opening, use of thunderous diminished chords and connection to the ‘spooky’ church organ – a long established cliché of the horror movie genre. Musically, the work displays clear concepts that all happen to work well on the guitar in the original key with drop D tuning. These include 1: repetition of a melodic phrase across three octaves (which fit quite snugly on the guitar) in bars 1-2. 2: symmetrical motion of a diminished triad shape across the fretboard (bars 22-27). 3: over-ringing chord arpeggios (bars 2-3, 10-11) and 4: the short but iconic main theme in bars 12-15, which involves the rapid alternation of a fixed ‘pedal tone’ bass note (played with the picking hand thumb) and a higher moving melody played with the picking hand fingers.
The technical requirements of this piece – though challenging – are actually rather clear, so this work is not only a satisfying, and recognisable, performance piece but an excellent study in which to develop skills that may be used elsewhere.
NEXT MONTH Bridget transcribes Gustav Holst’s rousing, I Vow To Thee My Country
its thunderous diminished chords and ‘church organ’ connection make it an est ablished cliché of the horror movie
Johann Sebastian Bach: did he write Toccata, or not?