Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s set of seven Toccatas for keyboard date from 1707-11, just prior to and during the first years of his post in Weimar. During these formative years he experimented with a wide variety of compositional models. Overall, these early toccatas lack the profound expression and technical mastery of Bach’s later music and are thus some of the least performed of his works. All too often, they come off as improvisatory and mere virtuosic pieces for keyboard. Nevertheless, they show the steady growth of one of music’s greatest geniuses.

The Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 is one of Bach’s least known works for keyboard. Most likely composed in either 1707 or 1708, it nevertheless portrays Bach’s developing composition style. The brief opening section of the toccata bears an inconspicuous resemblance to Bach’s later organ works, particularly with the octave leap that occurs repeatedly in the left hand. Furthermore, retrograding chords of the sixth with off-beats in the right hand might remind some listeners of a similar passage in the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. A fugato section follows with a lively rhythmic figure predominating. This section does not venture far from the E minor tonality, though its strictness of counterpoint causes it to stand out among the other early toccatas.

The following adagio is highly improvisatory. Arpeggios and scalar passage abound with plentiful embellishments. An extended fugue for three voices forms the final movement. The subject of the fugue, four bars in length, is actually identical to that of an anonymous fugue in a previously dated Italian manuscript. Furthermore, the two fugues share a striking number of similarities. While the composer of this earlier fugue is unknown to us, Bach was quite likely familiar with it at the time he composed his own. Today, Bach’s “version” would without a doubt be condemned as plagiarism. However, during the Baroque, the “recomposition” of another composer’s work was not uncommon and, in fact, considered a form of flattery. Bach’s fugue, however, enhances on the original version, by expanding its harmonic scope and conforming more to idiomatic keyboard writing. Joseph DuBose

Part of Elena Kuschnerova’s all-Bach recital that was released on ORFEO in 2001. Rosette in Penguin Guide 2003/04