On Teaching

September 29, 2020

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center, Princeton, New Jersey.

The toccata principle

Studying J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue inevitably leads to thinking about form. Whatever lens you view it through, the formal shape of that piece is important to its impact. Some of the qualities of abstraction that have been ascribed to the work may encourage us to focus too much on form or to attribute to form an even larger role in shaping the impact of the work than it really has. Paradoxically, I have thought recently about a formal principle that is very different from anything that is found in The Art of the Fugue. It stands almost opposed to it. 

I call this the toccata principle. This principle of shape or form is a bit elusive to describe because it is not “a form” as such, but rather a particular way of using contrast and continuity. It is a principle that can shape a piece and be responsible for creating form and structure. It is found in pieces that are constructed largely through other means. I have a feeling that looking for this principle in places where it might not be evident on the surface can help illuminate what is happening rhetorically in many situations.

There are elements of music—pieces, movements, passages—that are constructed according to what seems like a consistent evolution. Something happens at the beginning, it continues, and when it changes it does so according to some sort of logic. The texture does not change drastically or very often, and when it does change, the change is not jarring. This is nothing rare or arcane: it is by far the norm or a common form found throughout organ repertoire and in classical music in general. Each movement of The Art of the Fugue fits this description. So do the Bach trio sonata movements, the vast majority of his fugues and his chorale preludes, most Mozart concerto or sonata movements, and much of the output of Brahms and Bruckner. 

A different sort of construction occurs when a piece (or movement or passage) is created out of short elements of music that are very different from one another, making an overall shape as much out of contrast as out of continuity. This is the principle according to which most of Frescobaldi’s toccatas were clearly and explicitly constructed. This is why I tend to use “toccata” as a shorthand or tag for this sort of construction. This principle, however, also pervades much of Frescobaldi’s output that was not given the title “toccata.” It was picked up by, among others, Frescobaldi’s pupil Froberger, who was probably responsible for transmitting an awareness of this technique to a wide swath of the musical world north of the Alps. Froberger was widely traveled and quite influential. The North German organ praeludium grew out of this form.

Naming pieces

One of the things that I remember hearing in classes, lessons, and hallways during graduate school years was that a “Praeludium” in the Buxtehude, Lübeck, or Bruhns sense was not a “Prelude and Fugue,” at least not in the Well-Tempered Clavier or Mendelssohn or Shostakovich sense. At the time this felt like kind of a new idea. Some pieces by Buxtehude and others that were clearly in many short sections (some contrapuntal and some not) and the manuscripts that were titled “Praeludium” or “Toccata” had, according to then-modern tradition, been re-titled “Prelude and Fugue.” This in turn led to an often-futile search for the section that was “the fugue,” which was distinct from “the prelude.”

One way to frame the distinction between the Frescobaldi/Froberger/Buxtehude toccata or praeludium and the WTC-type prelude and fugue is that the latter is a piece in two movements, each often quite unified, whereas the former is a piece in one movement but with many sections. As I wrote above, the continuously spun out sort of musical unit often coincides with what we call a movement. This is almost circular or a matter of agreed-upon definition. If a piece starts and unfolds in a unified manner with logical development and then ends with a cadence and a double bar, we will consider this a movement, unless it is the entire work. It is easy to say that Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548, for example, is a piece in two movements. That would be evident to a listener who had never heard the piece, or heard of it, and had never seen the layout of the printed music.

In a piece that is constructed from contrasting sections, the contrasts might be along some of the following lines: contrapuntal versus non-contrapuntal; regular in meter versus rhythmically static, recitative-like, irregular, or disjunct; slow versus fast; using dissonance in a regular, prepared, and resolved manner versus using dissonance for immediate or shocking effect; somewhat vaguely: harmonically lush and compelling versus harmonically bare and tentative; unified within the section as to texture (in the sense of normal prevailing number of voices or notes) versus irregular or varied within the section as to texture (for example, chords interspersed with scales); major versus minor; ending with a cadence versus ending abruptly; and more.

In the first toccata of Frescobaldi’s Second Book of Toccatas and Partitas (1627), there are eleven sections. This is in a piece that takes about four minutes to play. The opening section consists of chords, trills, and scale passages; the second contains a bit of imitative counterpoint in which the point of imitation in sixteenth-notes is accompanied by quarter-note chords as it migrates from voice to voice; the next section is composed of all dissonance and written-out trills; the fourth is again contrapuntal, but with more rhythmic variety in the voices; and so on. The piece ends with a long, rhythmically free cadential section, prior to which is a sort of jig fugue that almost could have been written by Buxtehude or Pachelbel. My purpose here is not to give a very thorough analysis of the piece, but to demonstrate that the sections are short, on average, and clearly contrast with one another.  

Buxtehude’s Praeludium in C Major, BuxWV 137, is one that I tried to learn in my very earliest days playing the organ. It was known to me in those days as Prelude, Fugue, and Ciacona. This made some sense as far as the fugue and ciacona were concerned: the fourth section of the piece is in imitative counterpoint, quite thoroughgoing, and it makes sense to call it a fugue; the seventh and penultimate section is manifestly a ciacona. But where’s the prelude? There are three quite distinct sections preceding the fugue: together they could be the prelude, I suppose. But they are not one coherent whole. The distinction between the opening section and the second section is as crisp as that between the part before the fugue and throughout the fugue. Then what of the sections between the fugue and the ciacona? In order for this work to have an accurate and convincing name that is a kind of blow-by-blow description, the name would have to be Prelude, Fugue, Interlude, Ciacona, and Coda—or something like that. In fact, it is a praeludium in one movement with eight contrasting sections.

All of this about titles is not necessarily important, as I am sure that the more accurate names are now in general use. But this nomenclature does tend to put a sort of screen or filter between the player (or student) and the actual structure and rhetoric of the piece. What is most interesting to me about that structure is the notion that a certain kind of experience creates the need for a different experience, and that it is this need—played out in infinite detail—that creates shape. 

It is the skill or genius of the composer of such a piece to make the details meaningful. How much dissonance or static rhythm and of what kind creates the need for what kind of lush harmony or compelling, dance-like pulse? What does it mean for a passage of irregular, ever-changing texture to be followed by regular, imitative, maybe almost chatty counterpoint? This is independent of the sort of shape that is created by continuity or recurrence, that is, the kind of shape that is found in The Art of the Fugue and in much of the music that we play or hear.

My use of the word “toccata” to label this compositional approach comes, as I said, from my having first encountered it in the toccatas of Frescobaldi. But words serve as names of pieces when and how composers want them to, and it is important not to take those words to mean more than they mean. At a certain point in music history, the word “toccata” came to denote a piece that is outwardly virtuosic and fast. This has been known to cause people to assume that any piece with that name should be presumptively treated as virtuosic and fast. But the term simply did not mean that at all in the seventeenth century. Likewise, by the nineteenth century, the word did not have any flavor whatsoever of the sort of structure that I am talking about here. The Widor Toccata, for example, is in a form that is about as opposite to this as could be: a perpetuum mobile spun out of one compelling gesture that seemingly cannot be stopped! (Or that one doesn’t want to stop.)

Bach wrote several pieces that come down to us with the word “toccata” in the title. Seven of these are harpsichord toccatas, and six of these are arguably constructed in a Bachian version of what I am describing here. The seventh is clearly not: it is basically an Italian concerto, as much so as the Bach work that actually bears that name. Of the organ toccatas, the D Minor, BWV 565, is in this sort of form; the so-called “Dorian” is emphatically not; the big C-major Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue is, though the sections are dramatically longer than those of any corresponding Frescobaldi, Froberger, or Buxtehude piece; the F Major is probably not: it is sectional in its construction, but the sections display a lot of unity.

Not all of the pieces that Frescobaldi himself titled “Toccata” are in precisely this form, though most of them are. “Toccata VIII” from Second Book of Toccatas and Partitas is clearly different, and the toccatas from Fiori Musicali are mostly not constructed this way. Also, many works of Frescobaldi’s that are given names of contrapuntal forms—canzona, ricercar, etc.—are constructed according to this sort of sectional contrasting plan, usually with the contrapuntal sections longer than all the rest.

Why in particular do I believe that it is fruitful to share these ideas with students? It is extremely easy to gravitate toward surface continuity as a source of shape and direction in music and to try to use our understanding of that continuity to guide interpretive choices. This underlies the way I normally pick pieces apart and I believe represents a common approach. We want to know what comes back, and how different themes relate to one another. We use this to make certain decisions, starting with basics like shaping similar themes in similar ways. So I think that students do not often look for contrast, surface discontinuity, or abrupt, apparently illogical change, or they are reluctant to make differences noticeably different. The notion that some pieces will have a more convincing overall shape and greater emotional impact the more we let differences be really different is, maybe, counterintuitive. But it is both true and sometimes a useful corrective.

To come back very briefly to the somewhat speculative mode of some of my Art of the Fugue discussion, we want evident continuity in life. But in real life, though there is often a lot of continuity, we never know for sure what is going to happen when we next turn the corner or even as we keep walking straight! I suspect that the Frescobaldi and Froberger toccatas, though in a very easy-to-listen-to harmonic language, were in fact getting at some of the same sense of dislocation and questioning that is found in some nineteenth- and, even more, twentieth-century music. It is interesting that Bach used the sectional/fragmented/contrast-based approach much earlier in his career than later. Was this just his moving away from early models, or did it reflect something evolving in his approach to life?

And then there’s Beethoven.

There was a specific incident that kicked off the most recent chapter of my own exploration of the toccata principle. I was listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This is a piece that it is very hard not to experience as a cliché. I had never disliked it, but I had never gotten as much power out of it as I do out of, for example, Beethoven’s seventh or eighth symphonies. I had probably always found it simultaneously stirring and a bit annoying. This time listening, though, I suddenly had the thought: “Oh! This is a Frescobaldi toccata!” And so it is. It is printed out in four movements. But those are not the real divisions. It is an overarching work with sections that have continuity, more thematic recurrence than Frescobaldi or Froberger, but that also have contrast and a sense of fragmentariness in spite of their length. 

I do not (yet?) have a rigorous measure-by-measure analysis of how this works, but I find it convincing, and it greatly enlivened the piece for me. I also suspect that Beethoven in particular used fragmentary contrast more than I (at least) had noticed. This is something that I want to continue to examine.

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