Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Toccata

Flashing fingers fly
And dance across the keyboard
Weaving their magic.

Feet too join the dance
Executing bass figures,
Sliding as on ice.

The word toccata
Means to touch—fingers, yes, and
Heart and soul and mind.

The toccata is by nature a flashy piece of music.  It typically includes fast runs of notes, and can sound like an improvisation.  It is a showcase for a musician’s skills.  Toccatas are typically written for a keyboard instrument, but that’s not a requirement—toccatas have been written for string instruments, and even for orchestra (the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is a toccata).  While the form had its heyday in the Baroque period, with Bach, master improviser, at the summit (Toccata in D Minor, the toccata everyone knows), the form never entirely went away.

Schumann wrote a Toccata in C (Op. 7) which he believed was the most difficult music at the time.  In this video, you can follow the sheet music, which will give you an idea of the complexity.  Liszt also gave it a whirl (Toccata, S. 197a).

Ravel included a toccata in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes is a toccata as well.  One can also look to the finale of Widor’s Symphony No. 5 for a fine example of a toccata.  You can find some videos of the finale here, including Widor himself playing the toccata.

Khachaturian wrote a toccata that became very popular (the suite it came from is nearly forgotten).  The link features pianist Lev Oborin, who was the first to perform it.

For some real flash (and the piece that prompted this post) check out Prokofiev’s Toccata Op. 11.  Here it is on a piano.  Now add feet:  here is the same toccata on an organ.

Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto begins with a toccata.  The last movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8 contains a toccata.  Also check out John Rutter’s Toccata in 7.

And now for the strings!  The last movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto contains a toccata, and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 5, a viola concerto, also contains a toccata (he also wrote a Toccata for a Mechanical Piano, meaning a player piano, which you can see here).

If you’re ever having a blah day, and need a quick pick-me-up, try a toccata!

1 Comment

Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.



Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonatas To Match Your Mood

Portrait of Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco

Melancholy? Blue?
Domenico Scarlatti
Wrote something for you.

Overjoyed? Happy?
Domenico Scarlatti
Wrote something snappy!

Need soothing and mild?
Domenico Scarlatti
Lulls you like a child.

Whatever your mood,
Domenico Scarlatti
Has that attitude.

A few nights ago I heard a keyboard sonata by Domenico Scarlatti at a student recital, and it caught my ear.  It was bright and delicate, and simply wonderful.  So I went home and listened to a bunch of Scarlatti.

It’s easy to do.  Scarlatti wrote over 500 keyboard sonatas, and they are short pieces, typically one movement (nonetheless, the Scarlatti Complete Sonatas box set by Scott Ross consists of 34 CDs!).  So if you look long enough, you’re sure to find something to match your mood.

Looking to start your day with something light and cheerful?  Try the Sonata in G major, K. 2.

Or perhaps you’re in the middle of your day, and ready for something really lively.  How about the Sonata in C major, K. 159?

Maybe you’ve already finished a full day of work, and are looking for something soothing.  Here is Vladimir Horowitz performing Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor, L. 33 (K. 87), one of my favorites.

If you’re a Horowitz fan, there are a number of videos of his performances of Scarlatti, and it’s a delight to watch his fingers dance across the keys.  If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Mikhail Pletnev, Ivo Pogorelich, or, going back further, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, they made fine recordings of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, each with their own take on the music.

Want to hear all of them on virtual harpsichord?  John Sankey has all the Scarlatti sonatas available for listening or download on his websiteClaudio Colombo has recorded them on a digital piano.  You can also hear and download Scarlatti sonatas on this beautifully illustrated Czech Radio site (they have a project underway and hope to offer all of them at some point).  The latter site has useful categories such as melancholic, cheerful, hit song, fast, slow, and…difficult (for you keyboard players who would like to road test them).

So why not do a little exploring?  You’re sure to find something to suit your mood!


Image attribution: Portrait of Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons