Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV. 565

Historical Background (including biography)

Life and Career of J.S. Bach
  • Born to a family of musicians working in what is now central Germany
  • Fulfilled various posts throughout his life
    • Arnstadt: church organist at Neue Kirche (1703)
    • Mühlhausen: church organist at St. Blasius (1707)
    • Weimar: position (organist then concertmaster) at the court of the Duke of Weimar (1708)
    • CöthenKapellmeister (music director) at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen (1717)
    • Leipzig: cantor of the St. Thomas School and civic music director
  • Bach's duties and activities in Leipzig

Read J.S. Bach's "Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music," in Source Readings in Music History, rev. ed., vol. 4, The Baroque Era, edited by Margaret Murata (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 57–61.

Compositions by Bach: BWV=Bach-Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog)

  • Sacred Works
    • Church cantatas (about 200)
    • Latin church music (motets and mass)
    • Passions and oratorios
    • Organ works based on chorales (about 200)
  • Secular Works
    • Secular cantatas
    • Organ works independent of chorales
    • Keyboard works: The Well-Tempered Clavier
    • Solo instrument works
    • Chamber works
    • Orchestral works: Brandenburg Concertos
    • Counterpoint studies: The Art of Fugue

Political situation in German-speaking lands
  • The Holy Roman Empire: conglomeration of Imperial territories (the Hapsburg families), large and small principalities, and independent cities.
  • Multiple musical centers (unlike the more centralized environment in France and Germany)
  • Division between the Protestant and Catholic territories (The Thirty Years' War ended in 1648)

Cultural Context

The Protestant Reformation (how much can we discuss this?)
  • Martin Luther's departure from the Roman Catholic church
  • Development of new liturgy and accompanying music: chorales
  • Compositions based on chorales (compare to Josquin's Missa Pange lingua)

Bach Reception (in brief)
  • Reputation as a masterful but old-fashioned composer by the time of his death
  • Known among later composers (such as Haydn and Mozart) in the 18th century
  • Did not achieve revival until Felix Mendelssohn's efforts in the early 19th century

Analytical Commentaries

Toccata (touched): Piece for keyboard instruments (or Lute) in the Renaissance and Baroque Periods resembling improvisation that may include imitation. May be an independent piece or functions as a prelude to a fugue (as in this case)


  • Juxtaposition of different musical ideas (single note in octave with ornament, rapid scalar passage, chords, rapid figuration and repeated patterns, etc.)
  • Virtuosic display of the performer
  • These create an effect of improvisation (composing music on the spot)

Tempo and Rhythm
  • Frequent shifts in tempo
  • "Stop and go" feel

Fugue (Fuga, Fuge): Composition in imitative texture that is based on a single subject and begins with successive statements of the subjects in difference voices.
  1. The main theme of the fugue is stated first in the tenor. This is called the subject.
  2. The subject moves to the alto in m. 2. The tenor's part is called the counter-subject.
  3. The subject moves to the soprano in m. 9.
  4. Bach explores different musical ideas but refers to bits and pieces of the subject
  5. Statement of the subject in the bass in m. 22
  6. Statement of the subject in the tenor in m. 27
  7. Statement of the subject in the soprano in m. 40
  8. Statement of the subject in the bass in m. 56
  9. Statement of the subject in the tenor in m. 63
  10. Statement of the subject in the bass in m. 79
  11. Statement of the subject in the tenor in m. 94

Recitativo at m. 97 initiates another improvisatory passage that explores various musical ideas in different textures, configuration, and tempo.

Enhanced Listening ExcerptScore with commentary