On the Authorship of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
The most famous organ piece in history is one that you've heard a million times, even if you don't know its name, and even if you don't know its composer -- which, spoiler alert, I'll tell you right now: it's the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach. At least, that's the traditional view. But some say that it wasn't written by him at all. Turns out to be a real detective story -- but where will it lead us?
It is, by a huge margin, the most famous and best known organ work on Earth. Its famous opening is iconic in the truest sense of the word, immediately recognized by nearly everyone, even if they don't know its title. To its fans it is a wild, sweeping ride that tests the abilities of both its instrument and its performer, who must draw every last bit of flexibility from both hands and both feet across multiple manuals and a pedalboard. It is, almost inevitably, by one of the very greatest composers of music, the incomparable Johann Sebastian Bach, with whose name it is nearly synonymous. Or... is it? For some 50 years, some musicologists have been casting doubt on this attribution, and argued that the Toccata and Fugue was most likely composed by someone else. To some this is unspeakable heresy, but to others, it is a valid historical question.
If your primary residence is underneath a rock, it may be necessary to briefly introduce the piece. Its formal name is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, where BWV is the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the most authoritative catalog of works authored by Johann Sebastian Bach. Most performances run about 9 minutes in length. It is a Baroque work, meaning that it was in the style of, and composed during, the Baroque era in Europe, considered to be about 1600-1750. A discussion of Baroque music is beyond the scope of this episode, and any one thing I might cherrypick to say about it would trigger of deluge of criticism from music experts; but one familiar characteristic you can think of to differentiate Baroque from Classical is that Baroque tends to feature structured complexity, while Classical tends to be more free flowing and lyrical.
Such an introduction to a musical piece as this may seem glaringly incomplete, as it's missing some pretty basic information. First, that we don't know when it was composed, as there is no existing known score of it written in its original composer's hand, only later copies by others; second, we don't know what instrument it was originally composed for. Organ is the most probable, but there are competing theories, including that it was adapted from a piece originally written for violin, harpsichord, or lute. Third, obviously, is the author. It is nearly universally attributed to Bach, largely on the preponderance of circumstantial evidence and everything about it. The earliest known score was penned by the German composer and organist Johannes Ringk. This transcription is undated, but music historians have pegged it between 1740 and 1760. Most notably, its title page boldly gives the name of the composer: J. S. Bach.
An obvious question to ask is why don't we have a copy of the Toccata and Fugue written by Bach himself? Surely he'd have kept it. Well, much of this has to do with how his estate was handled upon his death — all of his stuff, including his scores, was divided up all over the place, and much was lost. The German musicologist Christoph Wolff is generally acknowledged as the world's foremost authority on Bach, and in his 600-page magnum opus Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician he has a whole chapter on Bach's estate and legacy. He discusses what happened to scores such as this one:
(It was indeed among his earlier works, and is believed to have been composed when he was — hold onto your hats — a teenager, probably in 1702.)
So who was this Johannes Ringk? Though a talented composer and organist in his own right, today he's best known for the many important organ piece transcripts (like this one) that he penned. Ringk was a student of Johann Peter Kellner, also a composer and organist, who was a close acquaintance of Bach's. Kellner may have been a student of Bach's, that detail is not proven, but they were fellow organists at the same time and place and definitely well acquainted. Like Ringk, Kellner is considered an important figure in the preservation and dissemination of works by his great instructor, through transcription made by his own hand plus those in his group, including Ringk. By any reasonable assessment, it doesn't seem credible that Kellner could have been wrong about the authorship of his friend's own piece, and by extension, neither could have Ringk. Bach absolutely was well aware of Kellner's group's transcriptions.
If this earliest manuscript, from the most authoritative available source, gives the composer as Bach, then why is there is controversy over its authorship? It's not like anybody else has a better source of information.
So there are two points to understand about the doubt over Bach's authorship. First is that it's a minority view; most Bach scholars believe the piece is his. Second is that the only evidence for any different attribution is stylistic, meaning that when a musicologist listens to the piece, there are any number of aspects of it to which they might say "Hmmm, that doesn't sound characteristic of Bach." So just to be clear: there is no solid evidence that the piece was not written by Bach.
The Toccata and Fugue would not be the first organ work to be originally attributed to Bach and later attributed to another composer. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 897 is among the most often cited. This piece suffered from the same lack of original manuscript from Bach but it's now been attributed to Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel, a student of Bach's. Indeed, Dretzel's harpsichord work Harmonische Ergötzung was also attributed to his illustrious teacher for a long time.
Organist and author Jonathan B. Hall is one of the most prominent voices advocating Dretzel as the actual author of the Toccata and Fugue. Hall's argument is built entirely upon style — the details and variety of which I'm not even going to touch upon in this episode. Hall summarizes his conclusion thus:
I read Hall's work with great care, several times. My ability to draw a conclusion from it was weakened by my own lack of his profound knowledge of the organ, its works, its history, its use in different regions, eras, the differences between the organs themselves, and all that those details tell us. So I had to grant his position considerable leeway. Yet I could not get past the fact that the argument is purely subjective, and to me, it was not sufficient to move me to discard Kellner and Ringk's attribution to Bach on that seminal manuscript's title page. Both Kellner and Ringk would have been even more familiar with all the points Jonathan Hall raises, with the additional inside track of having known and worked with Bach personally. In addition, all three were part of the small community of major organ talents in Germany — a pretty small pond.
Of course, Hall is only one of many who have been advocating alternative views on the Toccata and Fugue since at least the 1960s, most notably among them Rolf-Dietrich Claus and Peter Williams. Among the more intriguing was a computational stylistics analysis done by some computer scientists in 2006. Using statistical pattern recognition algorithms, they analyzed a number of disputed works by Bach and plotted where they land on a chart showing the known works of Bach, his eldest son the composer Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and the composer Johann Ludwig Krebs. Of the disputed works they analyzed, one clearly landed inside the realm of Krebs, and the rest were all in the realm of Bach himself. The Toccata and Fugue was the exception. It was outside of Bach's normal style but still much closer to him than to either of the other two. Of course this type of analysis is neither definitive nor comprehensive, and can only compare works and composers it's programmed to compare, but was still an interesting result. "Very unusual for Bach, but still closest to Bach," which Wolff always explained by Bach's youth at the time he composed it. It was, said Wolff:
It is noteworthy that if anyone wants to do a deep dive on this subject and search for articles written about the Toccata and Fugue, there is a tremendous amount available; and only rarely will you encounter any mention of doubt over its authorship — it is unquestionably a minority view. And when you do encounter it, questions like those raised by Hall and others — which are perfectly valid — are dismissed with other answers within the context of Bach's development as a young organ composer that do not require us to dispose of Ringk's boldly penned attribution. Unless someone finds a 1702 copy of the score signed by the old boy himself — which is not impossible — this is a question that's going to have to remained unanswered. If you'd like my advice for where you should best come down on this one, I suggest to stick with the null hypothesis unless more evidence turns up showing that it's wrong. And for now, that null hypothesis is that all is probably as it appears to be, and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Cite this article:
Copyright ©2021 Skeptoid Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.