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Toccata - Classical music's cat on a hot tin roof!
Toccata - Classical music's cat on a hot tin roof!
For some 500 years, the toccata has been the ultimate show-off piece, allowing virtuosi to exhibit their brilliant technique for the sheer hell of it: a chance to play to the gallery and invite the audience to indulge in a major-league, fast and loose roller-coaster ride. The toccata's rhapsodies are not for the faint-hearted artist, though. This is where fingers and brain collide - where you hear the jazz in classical - the cat on a hot tin roof.

Originating as a spur of-the-moment improvisation on a short theme before embarking on a more substantial work, the toccata soon took on a life of its own as a recognized composition on paper. Although primarily a keyboard piece, the most famous early named example is the big, brassy introduction to Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo. Moving from the Renaissance into the Baroque era, the toccata found a formidable friend in J.S. Bach whose Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has stirred the blood and scared the wits out of most of us at an early age when played by shady characters in a multitude of schlock-horror movies (the toccata is the opening two-and-a-half minutes of the work).

Later, and now in cognito, the toccata managed to muscle its way into the compositions of classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The latter’s Piano Sonata Op.26 takes the toccata and moves it from a tasty opener to a barn-storming closer. Even as a final movement, though, this toccata stays true to the fearsome scales and complex passages punctuated by chords that so distinguished earlier examples. Regaining its fine name later in the nineteenth century, the French organist, Widor followed Beethoven in moving the toccata to the end of a substantial work, thereby finishing with a flourish – much to the delight of newlyweds who often request the fearsomely difficult Toccata from his Organ Symphony No.5 as they exit blissfully from the church, leaving behind an exhausted organist. Never types to resist a flourish, brass players have also had a good deal of fun arranging the same piece in order to display their mettle in all of its rip-roaring glory.

Returning to the piano, both Prokofiev and Ravel, in the twentieth century, invited the toccata into their musical worlds. Prokofiev, without mercy, brings in the orchestra to join his relentless motor-rhythms in the third movement of his Piano Concerto No.5. Ravel, meanwhile, dresses the Toccata up as an exquisite dandy, its bright scarf and cravat fluttering magnificently in the wind.

And the toccata is still going strong today and very much in touch with the latest technology, even while harking back to its roots as an organ improvisation. When GMN artist Simon Preston handed a recent finalist at the Calgary International Organ Competition an envelope containing the theme on which he had to compete for the improvisation prize, little did he realize that the 13 notes constituted Maestro Preston’s mobile phone ring-tone! Listen to what we have christened the Mobile Toccata.

Martin Ross


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