Was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue originally written for strings?

This week I put the finishing touches to my interpretation of Bach‘s most popular piece for electric guitars, namely his Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Bach was so far ahead of his time that electricity hadn’t been invented when he wrote the piece – therefore most musicians had to make do with playing it on the organ. Joking apart there is a serious debate going on in academic circles about whether this famous work was originally written for strings and then adapted, probably by Bach, for the pipe organ.

German Composer Johann Sebastian Bach - 1685 - 1750

German Composer Johann Sebastian Bach – 1685 – 1750

The idea that the Toccata and Fugue was originally a violin piece was put forward in 1981 by the musicologist Peter Williams. This view reflected a number of anomalies in the music which he considered to be unusual if it were written simply for the organ. A more recent suggestion was that the work may even have been written for a 5 string Cello. There continues to be a major debate between various experts about the original instrumentation involved and also whether the piece was even written by Bach. If you want to read more please check a simple summary of the various discussions here.

The question of ownership of this music was not made easier by the lack of a signed original manuscript by Bach. All the versions available today stem directly or indirectly from a manuscript published in 1833 by Johannes Ringk. There are a number of markings in the original manuscript which are typical of Italian music and not normally found in manuscripts of music from North Germany at the time of Bach. This further added to the question of: ‘Which bits of the score came from where?’.

Part of the first page of Johannes Ringk's manuscript for Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565)

Part of the first page of Johannes Ringk’s manuscript for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565)

Considering the debate about whether this piece might have actually started of life as a piece of string music I decided as part of my TRANSFORMATES 變 Music Project to convert the 1833 version of the score and try to play it using string instruments. The transcription of the score from organ to multiple string parts proved more challenging than I had anticipated. Listening to many interpretations of the music I realised that the piece we are accustomed to hearing today has evolved considerably from Ringk’s original manuscript. This is quite understandable – music will be played differently over time – it just made my job of trying to capture any ‘string’ DNA in the piece a little more challenging.

Rather than simply using orchestral strings alone I decided to also introduce a couple of electric lead guitars and a bass guitar. This helped me to emphasize some of the counterpoint elements and reinforce some of the superb harmonies present in the piece. As a result the original organ work has been transformed to a contemporary piece of string music. One of the great things about Bach’s genius is that his music can be adapted to other media. I do not imagine for one moment that my interpretation solves the question of whether the piece was originally written for strings. It does however show that the music is easily adaptable to strings as well as being a great organ piece.

Here is the YouTube recording of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as interpreted by the TRANSFORMATES 變 Music Project:

If you have any views or comments on this or other music from the TRANSFORMATES 變 Music Project please use the comments box below (or leave a comment on YouTube). I hope to soon be able to share with you some other interpretations of great classical works. Meanwhile you might like to check out the TRANSFORMATES playlist on YouTube using the link here.

Chris Duggleby

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