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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

As the Baroque era settled into full cruising speed during the seventeenth century, busy composers found a way to simplify that pesky chore of naming their works via a triplet of conveniently generic Italian terms. A sonata was an instrumental work, a cantata was vocal, and a toccata (from the verb “to touch”) was a keyboard piece. Typically, toccatas consisted of numerous unrelated sections and were at least partly improvised right on the spot. Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) is generally considered to be the founding father of the genre; within fifty years toccatas had spread to all corners of musical Europe.

Inspired by German masters such as Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) created a number of keyboard toccatas quite early in his career, probably around 1714. The C minor Toccata begins with a flourish before settling into a more reflective slow section built on a rising motif. The second half is given over to a rip-roaring fugue.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER