J. S. Bach / Leopold Stokowski Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BMV 565 (1952)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Contemporary listeners may recoil in shock when they hear this work. We have become so accustomed to the idea that music from the past must be played in a manner somehow reflective of the performance practices in vogue in the era from which the music dates, that the notions of recasting a work in performance, adapting it to new conditions, or transcribing it for different forces all seem like sacrilege. A work for a Baroque organ is transformed into a twentieth-century orchestral essay designed to underscore powerful sonorities and distinct orchestral sound effects. Stokowski’s transcription is, in this sense, an affront to history.

At the same time, however, Stokowski remained faithful to history and tradition. Mozart made his own orchestration of Handel’s Messiah. Bach himself tinkered with and appropriated the work of others, using different instrumental combinations. Ravel took a work for piano, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and made it a standard repertory piece for orchestra. Schoenberg and Stravinsky both transcribed Baroque music for modern orchestral forces. Wagner rewrote Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris (the overture), and Mahler rewrote all of Weber’s Euryanthe. Strauss made his own version of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

These efforts point to a tradition that followed the notion that audiences from different times possess different acoustic expectations and habits of hearing. If music–defined as the notes on the page–constitutes a script much like that of the text for a piece of spoken theater, then in order to make those notes effective to new audiences, changes may be necessary. We do not object to the fact that every production of Shakespeare in modern times differs not only in staging and acting style but in pronunciation from the so-called “original” practices of the early seventeenth century. In music we have become unreasonably skittish about what is accepted as second nature in the theater.

What motivated Stokowski was the fact that arguably much of Bach’s greatest music–particularly that for organ alone–was falling into obscurity. The audience for music long ago had developed beyond the confines of church attendance. The symphony orchestra concert (assisted by the radio broadcast) reached a much wider audience in the modern era than did the church service. The orchestra could function as the moral equivalent of the church organ for a secular public.

Transcribing Bach was not only a way of bringing his music to a modern audience, but also of remaining faithful to its imposing musical architecture. In Stokowski’s masterful use of theorchestra, the concertgoer experiences sensations perhaps more comparable to those experienced by churchgoers in eighteenth-century Leipzig, rather than those he or she might encounter listening to a performance on a period instrument in a Baroque church. Furthermore, in America there are few Baroque churches. To restrict Bach to performance on an instrument with an archaic aura and in a setting reminiscent of an age gone by seems an unnecessary price to pay, given the greatness of the music.

Stokowski sought to solve the problem of how to encourage familiarity with Bach’s organ music in the context of modern life. His transcription faithfully outlines the counterpoint and the discrete linear dimensions of the music. It also controls the layering of timbres and approximates the special sounds characteristic of the organ. In its ingenuity and its fearless exploitation of orchestral power, Stokowski’s version may be more “authentic” to Bach than a meticulous re-creation on the kind of organ Bach might have had at his disposal. To Bach’s contemporaries, the sound of that organ did not possess an artificial surface of antiquity. Yet to our modern ears, many period instrument performances sound distant and dated, particularly in the physical context of concert halls built during the last 100 years. The expressive power of the music is constrained by instruments whose character as “historical” overwhelms any aspects of the music that transcend the specific material circumstances surrounding its composition and first performances. In its modernized form, in Stokowski’s version, we can respond fully to Bach as more than an artifact of history.

Enough time has passed to make even Stokowski’s version dated. It too is no longer modern but rather emblematic of a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic, before the so-called early music movement. It possesses its own historical patina, from an age of optimism and confidence in the 1920s, when contemporaries in America believed the present and future held out the prospect of progress. Perhaps too much of our attachment to so called “authentic” performance practices mirrors not only a lack of optimism but some disturbing pessimism about the present day. We have become nostalgic and have retreated from the notion that the past might be improved upon. We feel rather too comfortable in an aural museum where we can lose ourselves in our personal images of days long gone by. Stokowski’s transcription therefore evokes not only Bach, but another era–that of America before the depression–an age of brash self-confidence and commitment to the contemporary possibilities of modernism.

This transcription was completed in 1927 and was premiered in Philadelphia. It was used later in the film Fantasia. It is one of many Bach transcriptions that Stokowski did in the years between the mid-1920s and 1940s, and for which he chose not only organ music, but parts of the Bach repertoire for solo violin, piano, and sections of the best-known cantatas.