May 11th – Toccata and Fugue

Do you recognise the first few notes of this piece?

This is Toccata And Fugue In D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was written about 300 years ago, during the Baroque period of music. It’s probably the most famous piece ever written for organ!

Organs look very similar to pianos, but they’re definitely a little more complicated, and they sound very different because instead of striking strings with a hammer, air is pushed through metal pipes. This is a bit like a recorder, but air is blown through the pipe by the organ itself, not the human playing it, and each pipe only plays one note – the bigger the pipe, the lower the note. The pipes are often enormous! Can you see them in this video as the camera moves across the church?

This particular organ has four different manuals (which are keyboards played by the hands). You can see these from the very beginning of the piece, as the organist swaps between them to make slightly different sounds, and to play particularly high or low notes. This organ also has a pedalboard (played by the feet!) but you’ll have to look closely to spot it being played. For example, at 2:44 you can see the organist moving his legs and you can hear some very low notes join in. And even more impressively, at 6:47 he plays the main tune with his feet – it’s very fast!

At 7:05 you can see a second man reach across to pull out the stops at the side of the organ. Just like the different manuals, these knobs can be used to change the sound of the organ. The main organist definitely doesn’t seem to have enough hands to keep playing and change the stops himself!

This piece contains a variety of textures. Sometimes all you can hear is a single melody line – one note at a time (or two notes exactly an octave apart, played in unison). Sometimes you can hear full chords – lots of notes stacked on top of each other. These moments remind me of hymns an organ might play in church. Sometimes there are lots of very quick notes, like arpeggios or broken chords. These notes change so quickly that you can almost hear two different melody lines at once – one containing the higher notes in the broken chord, and the other containing the lower notes.

Next time you enter a church or cathedral, have a look around and see if you can spot the organ – there’s usually one somewhere!

This article was written by alison