J.S. Bach: Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564

In the town square of Arnstadt, in central Germany, there stands a modern statue of a slender and well-muscled young man. He’s bare-headed, his shirt is partly unbuttoned, and he sprawls on a bench with his legs extended. His right hand droops downwards, while his left is extended to grasp something.

It’s Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) at age eighteen, when he was the organist for Arnstadt’s Neue Kirche. That clears up the mystery of his impudent posture: he’s captured while playing the organ. His extended legs are on the pedals, his right hand is on the keyboard, his left hand is pulling a stop.

Bach considered the organ as his lifelong bailiwick, and with good reason. His technical virtuosity and improvisatory skill elicited undisguised amazement from all who heard him. Biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel tells us that “He would choose some subject and execute it in all the various forms of organ compositions, never changing his theme, even thought he might play, without intermission, for two hours or more.” Nor was Bach limited to merely playing the organ; throughout his career he was in constant demand as an expert on the instrument’s construction, potential ailments, capabilities, and limitations.

The organist’s skill is on glorious display in the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564. The opening Toccata begins with flamboyant roulades in the manuals, the pedals limited to only the occasional bass note. Having remained demurely out of the way throughout the opening passage, the pedals now come into their own in an extended workout for both feet that ends with a superbly spectacular passage for manuals and pedals together. It all leads into an Adagio in which the pedals play a walking bass (i.e., steady notes marching along like a processional), while the manuals limn a vinelike and complex melody. (For a defining example of this Adagio style, consider the beloved Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, popularly known as the "Air on a G String.")

A short but richly detailed Grave passage—one of those quasi-improvisational affairs so beloved by German organists—leads to a dancelike fugue during which Bach extracts considerably more than one might expect from such a simple triadic subject. Eventually further improvisatory-sounding passages to lead the work to a grandly imposing conclusion.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(June 2019)