American organist Rodney Gehrke performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The piece is Bach’s signature work for organ solo. In this ultra-HD video, it is performed on a Flentrop organ (1), as part of the Voices of Music “Great Works” series.
To support the Great Works Project, which is introducing a new generation to Classical Music, please consider a donation.
One of the most brilliant and creative compositions ever written for the organ, the Toccata and Fugue are characterized by a grand, cathedral-like architecture. Pedal points provide the foundation, strettos engrave recurring design motifs on the architraves that join immense columns of sound, quirky modulations form spandrels at the ends of phrases, blue notes spout from the gargoyles guarding the rails of free-form episodes–episodes that form a fan-vault over the chords; subject and counter-subject weave rood-screens between the main formal sections, the fugue rules square the structure in balanced harmony, and striking modal colors provide illumination through the clerestory windows of Bach’s imagination.
The work is unique in many respects, and these unique qualities–for example, the solo statement of the fugue subject in the pedals is unprecedented in any work of the baroque–have led some musicologists (not us) to speculate that the work may not be by Bach, or that it is an arrangement drawn from a work for another instrument. But what instrument besides the organ could build a cathedral of sound?
Notes on the recording
The earliest source for the Toccata and Fugue comes from a later manuscript, possibly indirectly connected to one of Bach’s students: in this earliest source, the opening tempo is marked “adagio”, and the opening phrases conclude with coronas (crowns-now called fermatas). See the facsimile of the ms. below:
The fugue is performed at a tempo in which all the lines can be clearly heard, in particular the solo presentation of the subject played on the pedals. Five matched microphones were used in a surround sound formation along with HD camcorders running special software for resolving details in low light.
Playback notes: to view in 4K playback smoothly, we recommend changing the settings in your flash player in your browser. Right click or ctrl+click (Mac) on the video and choose settings. Even with a fast graphics card, we recommend unchecking the “use hardware acceleration” box. Most graphics cards will not play 4K video. Then find the storage setting and move the slider all the way to the right to allow more video to be stored temporarily on the computer. After making these changes, if you have an i5 or i7 processor, you can probably play back 4K in real time including some of the cool movie trailers online. Every computer is different, so you may have to adjust your settings back and forth. A Mac Pro should handle it nicely, or any PC with a i7 processor. After adjusting the settings, refresh the screen and hit the play button, then hit the pause button until the video is fully buffered.
Rodney Gehrke, professor of organ at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is also director of music at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Palo Alto, and organist and choir director at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El. Gehrke has performed and recorded with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and has also made two recordings of Mexican Baroque music with Chanticleer, with whom he toured the Southwest and Mexico. He has performed with the American Bach Soloists as continuo organist and harpsichordist. He has been heard with the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players and the Conservatory’s BluePrint series. He can be heard on the Organ Historical Society collections Historic Organs of San Francisco and Historic Organs of Seattle. Recent performances have included Seoul Theological University, Korea, and J.S. Bach’s St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany.
In 1985, in observance of the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach, Mr. Gehrke played the complete organ works of Bach in twelve concerts. He has performed and recorded with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra as continuo organist, and has also made two CDs of Mexican Baroque music with Chanticleer, with whom he toured the American Southwest and Mexico in 1998. He has also performed contemporary music with the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players and the San Francisco Conservatory’s Blueprint Festival.
His teachers have included his father, Hugo Gehrke, David Dahl, Lawrence Moe, and Harald Vogel of the North German Organ Academy. He holds degrees (M.A. in musicology) from the University of California, Berkeley.
- Flentrop is a Dutch company based in Zaandam that builds and restores organs. It was established in 1903 by Hendrik Wicher Flentrop (1866 -1950) in Koog aan de Zaan, a town in the Dutch province of North Holland. Hendrik, originally a house painter by trade, was an organist at the church at Zaandam, and started a piano – and organ trade. He believed that old organs could not be adapted to contemporary tastes, but had valid sound nonetheless. In 1915, after experience had been gained with restoration and extension of organs, the first new organ was built. Beginning in 1922 he had made correspondences with Albert Schweitzer, which resulted in pronounced opinions concerning the demands which had to be made on the organ. After the 1930s, the re-discoveries by Dirk Andries Flentrop were increasingly connected with tracker actions, wind chests and the new perspective on sound connected with it. Under the leadership of Johannes Anthonie Steketee in the 1970s, the accent shifted towards the application of historical constructions, proportions and materials. In that same periode Cees van Oostenbrugge was a driving force in this search, especially in the technical area. Under his direction it was decided to cast organ metal on a sand bed. As of 1998 Cees van Oostenbrugge has controlled the company. Another restoration was carried out of the Hans van Covelen organ, which is the oldest playable organ of the Netherlands, originally built in 1511. All controlling members have been simultaneously organists in several churches.