BWV 565

All of Bach: a project by the Netherlands Bach Society

Toccata and fugue in D minor

BWV 565 by Leo van Doeselaar
St. Martin's Church, Groningen

In what way does Leo van Doeselaar resemble a chef?

The Exuberance of Youth

There is no Bach composition that has been used so often and for such diverse purposes in our day as the 'Toccata and fugue in D minor', BWV 565.

From Disney’s Fantasia to The Phantom of the Opera, the opening of this composition has provided many memorable moments. The secret is in the striking first note, accented with a mordent, followed by that brief, tense moment of silence and the overpowering descending series of notes (or variations on it, like in Pirates of the Caribbean). Unfortunately, Bach’s own score has not survived, which has led to many speculations on the creation date of this wild and original composition that is actually not very ‘Bach-like’.

Much would be explained if this toccata and fugue could be situated in Bach’s younger years in Arnstadt, as the organ there lacked a 16-foot register on the keyboard. In order to create the effect produced by a 16-foot register (which sounds an octave lower than a ‘normal’ 8-foot register), Bach probably used octave doubling, thus enabling the continuation of the resounding effect of the opening bars. In any case, this sort of octave doubling is not found in any of Bach’s later organ works. After the force of the ‘improvised’ toccata, the strictly directed fugue with its uninterrupted series of fast notes certainly sounds no less furious. Later on, Bach may have felt embarrassed about his crude, youthful ‘clavier hussar’ style, as his biographer Forkel called it, and put the work aside. A lot of his other early organ work has been lost completely. Fortunately, this ‘youthful lapse’ by Bach was preserved for posterity by the copyist Johannes Ringk.


Like the prelude, the toccata is an unstructured form, in which keyboard players can give free rein to their imagination. But while Johann Gottfried Walther refers to the prelude simply as ‘ein Vorspiel’ in his Musikalisches Lexicon of 1732, he describes the toccata as a long piece in which both hands alternate, sometimes accompanied by long pedal notes. The marked freedom of the toccata is connected to the stylus phantasticus, which was popular in North Germany from the seventeenth century. This fanciful style of composition that had come over from Southern Europe was described by the same Walther as ‘freed from all constraint’. So it is remarkable that both the toccata and the prelude are often paired with the fugue, which is subject to strict compositional rules. Structure is lent to the whole, however, partly because the fugue derives its thematic material from the preceding part.


Toccata and fugue in D minor

organ work



Undated copy by Johannes Ringk by Johannes Ringk, Preussischer Kulturbesitz Handschrift Mus. Ms. Bach P595

Special notes/reuse
This work may be a transcription of a lost violin piece.

Cast & Crew

release date 2 May 2014
recording date 8 October 2013
location St. Martin's Church, Groningen
Organ Arp Schnitger, 1692
Organist Leo van Doeselaar
PRODUCER Frank van der Weij
FILM DIRECTOR Jan Van den Bossche, Frank van der Weij
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Jorrit Garretsen, Sal Kroonenberg
FILM EDITORS Leonie Hoever, Dylan Glyn Jones
Colorist Petro van Leeuwen
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS Zoë de Wilde, Marco Meijdam

Vocal Texts




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