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.
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!