Exploring the unknown of BWV 565: Part 1

May 25, 2021
Example 1: BWV 565
Example 1: BWV 565

Michael Gailit graduated from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna with both performance and pedagogy diplomas in organ as well as in piano. Teaching piano at this institute since 1980, he has also conducted the organ studio at the Musik und Kunst Universität in Vienna since 1995. As church organist he served at St. Augustine’s Church, 1979–2008; in 2011 he was appointed organist at the Jesuit Church (Old University Church).

Both in his performance and teaching repertoire, Gailit includes all style areas on the base of their individual performance practices. He toured with solo recitals on both instruments in Europe as well as in North America and appeared with leading orchestras and renowned conductors. Recordings, masterclasses, invitations to juries, musicological publications, editing sheet music, compositions, arrangements, supporting the piano-organ duo repertoire, commissioned works, first performances, and finally occasional trips into the theatre and silent movie repertoire should be noted.

Particular attention was received in 1989 for the first performance of the complete piano and organ works of Julius Reubke (1834–1858), the performance of the complete organ works of Franz Schmidt (1874–1939) the same year, as well as in September 2005 a series of six recitals with the trio sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, the organ sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and the organ symphonies of Louis Vierne. Currently Gailit is working on a book The Enigma BWV 565, a study elucidating new answers and new questions.

Much has been written about Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, and it seems that everything has been said. The work is considered an outstanding example of stylus phantasticus, a style of composition that encourages rhythmic and harmonic freedom. Effects play a greater role than contrapuntal substance, and in this respect BWV 565 has always been admired. Observations regarding its compositional quality, however, accumulated to such an extent that many have questioned whether it was actually composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1998, Rolf Dietrich Claus1 examined in detail the problem of authorship. From the discussion of plausible answers to the questions raised, it was possible to distill a list of compositional features that exacerbated the questions of authenticity and quality. In turn, Christoph Wolff2 in 2006 and Martin Blindow3 in 2019 showed that certain skillful structures and motivic relationships render doubts about quality or authorship obsolete. Moreover, the hurdle of finding an alternative composer could not be overcome.

Recently in 2020, Andreas Weil4 applied his historical-theoretical method and drew a comprehensive picture of the music theory of the time based on historic sources. After compiling a timeline from the gained information, features of BWV 565 were assigned to this timeline with the final conclusion that the piece was composed in 1702.

Finally, there is now this present study. Focusing solely on the musical text of BWV 565, it investigates the motivic structures and their development. What the notes can tell leads us into the unknown of BWV 565.

The nucleus idea

The opening phrase does not give the impression of a theme or a regular structure (Example 1). It sounds and looks like a nucleus idea ready for variation. When we disregard the note values, an astonishing proportion emerges. A total of nine notes fall into three groups of three notes each. The example in pitch notation (Example 2) shows their a–b–a′ form. Two mordent motives frame a trichord. The intervals of the melody progress from major seconds to minor seconds.

Nothing more than a coincidence is the relation to the number 9 when applying the Latin natural-order alphabet to the letters of the notes. The opening mordent notes A–G–A result in 1 + 7 + 1 = 9,
the trichord notes G–F–E result in 7 + 6 + 5 = 18 = 2 x 9, both motives therefore together 3 x 9.

The motives

The following list gives an overview of the motivic substance of BWV 565. All motives can be derived from the opening mordent (Example 3).

• The term mordent designates the ornament, but it is here also used for the motive with the same melodic shape.

• The trichord is created when the second step of the mordent does not return to the principle note, but proceeds in the direction taken.

• The tetrachord adds another note proceeding into the same direction.

• The cross motive reverses two notes each of the tetrachord.

• The turn motive gets its shape when the last note of the tetrachord changes direction. It also contains the trichord and the mordent.

• What we call the “kink” motive stretches the second step of the mordent.

• The figura messanza, generally taking many variants, shifts the mordent to the upbeat section in this case.

• The tetrachord becomes a figura suspirans when the last note falls on a downbeat.

All motives comprise three or four notes. The numbers 3 and 4 play a dominant role in the entire work. Further variations include mirrored versions or the tetrachord being split in two groups of two notes each, with the second group taking another position.

The second phrase varies the nucleus. The mordent opens, followed by a tetrachord whose four descending notes are interchanged forming the cross motive. The third phrase repeats the nucleus two octaves lower. The three phrases in A–B–A′ form reflect the a–b–a′ form of the nucleus notes, with both a–b–a′ and A–B–A′ arranged in descending order (Example 4).


The last four downbeat notes G–E–C-sharp–D in the first half of measure 2 are immediately repeated in reverse order in the second half of measure 2, followed by the transposition of the diminished triad to B-flat–C-sharp–E (Example 5). The B-flat completes the appearance of the main tone material (Example 6).

The next section, measures 4–7, develops the trichord—fittingly with triplets—in the complete range of the main tone material (Example 7). The motive is rhythmically shifted so that the second note becomes the downbeat note. This creates the “kink” motive that we find well prepared by the suspension figure at the end of the preceding section (Example 8). The fourfold repetition of the motive is repeated three times moving upward along the frame notes D–F–A of the tonic triad (Example 9).

For the figuration of the next section, measures 8–10, the intervals of the kink motive are stretched by a factor of two, the second becoming a third, the third becoming a diminished fifth (Example 10). The preceding section, measures 4–7, had

• a motive of stepwise note progression

• moving upward

• along the frame notes of a triad.

The present section, measures 8–10, switches everything and has

• a motive of triadic note progression

• moving downward

• along frame notes proceeding in stepwise motion.

The triad figures form three descending parallel scales until the leading tone C-sharp is reached to prepare the second pedal entry on D (Example 11).

The nucleus idea (measure 1) started on A5,5 running down a fifth to D5. The closing part of the first section, measures 10–12, is a variation of the beginning, measures 1–2: a long note, followed by a descending run, a closing mordent, a rising arpeggio, and another closing mordent. Compared to the beginning, the first note is extended upward a minor second to B4. The descending run quotes the complete main tone material, then extends downward a minor second to a mordent on C4-sharp. B-natural appears for the first time, preparing the raising arpeggio of the dominant seventh chord. It can be regarded as the resolution connected to the raising arpeggio of the diminished seventh chord earlier. The top two notes D4–F4 of the final chord in measure 12 are the delayed resolution of the last two triplet notes G4–C4-sharp in measure 10 (Example 12).

Lack of quality? The opposite—BWV 565 is an unparalleled example of motivic development. A mordent starts the piece, a mordent closes the first section (measures 11–12), and a mordent closes the second section and the whole part preceding the fugue (measure 30). The first mordent appears on the beat, the second mordent before the beat, and the third mordent after the beat (Example 13).

The first section, based on three-note motives, assigns to the pedal three isolated Ds. The piece starts with an A, the second part starts with an A as well (measure 12), as does then the fugue (measure 30). Every note appears to be placed on purpose.

To be continued.


1. Rolf Dietrich Claus, Zur Echtheit von Toccata und Fuge d-Moll BWV 565, 2nd ed. (Köln-Rheinkassel: Dohr, 1998).

2. Christoph Wolff, “Zum norddeutschen Kontext der Orgelmusik des jugendlichen Bach: Das Scheinproblem der Toccata d-Moll BWV 565,” in Bach, Lübeck und die norddeutsche Musiktradition, ed. Wolfgang Sandberger, 2nd ed. (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2006), 220–230.

3. Martin Blindow, “Zur Diskussion über die d-Moll-Toccata BWV 565,” in Acta organologica, vol. 36, ed. Alfred Reichling (Kassel: Merseburger, 2019), 401–429.

4. Andreas Weil, Der komponierende Organist um 1700: Studien zu Toccata und Fuge d-Moll BWV 565 von Johann Sebastian Bach (Köln: Dohr, 2020).

5. Note designations in scientific orthography: C2–C3–C4–C5–C6 (= traditionally C–c°–c’–c’’–c’’’).


Read more about Michael Gailit's thoughts on BWV 565.