#AskVidasAndAusra 56: Can you please introduce us to some of the "easier" toccatas?
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 56 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Morton, and he writes:
I really as so happy that you are able to send transcripts of your podcasts. I feel that these transcripts make all the difference in the world for your subscribers.
In this transcript, you mention the phrase "easier toccatas." In a future podcast, would you please introduce us to some of the *easier* toccatas?
In my case, I learned to play the Toccata from Suite Gothique by Boellmann when I was about 16 - and when I practiced after school five days a week and also played most of our church's 9:30 AM services (except for the offertory anthem). A few years ago I was able to bring that Toccata back to life...
I'm looking forward to a podcast transcript in which you mention some of the easier toccatas.
Okay, so this question is about toccatas. What would you recommend, for starters, Ausra?
Ausra: Well, I think that the Toccata, Boëllmann’s Toccata from Suite Gothique is a fairly good example of easy toccatas.
Vidas: Usually people start with Boëllmann, I would say.
Ausra: Well, yes, I know so many cases where people started with this toccata. Because it really fits hands comfortably and it’s not too complicated.
Vidas: It has maybe these famous double-pedal passages at the end, but it’s not too difficult.
Ausra: Well, it’s not so hard, I think.
Vidas: Because it’s in parallel octave motion.
Ausra: Yes. What would you suggest as other easy toccatas?
Vidas: Obviously Gigout Toccata. It’s also not too complex. You don’t have to play it too fast. You can choose your comfortable speed. And the pedal line is not too complex; usually in French toccatas, coordination between hands and feet is not too difficult because there is not too many things going on together at the same time.
Vidas: In French toccatas, often there is this famous toccata motion in the hands, motoric motion in the fingers; and then there is one melodic line, either in the pedals or in the soprano (which you play with your little pinky or the ring finger in the right hand), or sometimes in the tenor on the separate manual. So it alternates. Do you think that sometimes composers write counterpoint, like a parallel contrasting melody with the theme, like a dialogue between the theme and the countersubject?
Ausra: Yes I think so, that’s often the case.
Vidas: So that’s more complex, then.
Ausra: Yes, definitely, and while we are comparing different toccatas, I would say Bach’s toccatas are very hard, or at least much harder than those toccatas which you talked about.
Vidas: Yes. The term toccata is very old. It’s not originated with the French symphonic repertoire, of course, but it comes from Italian word called...
Vidas: Toccare. And it means…
Ausra: To touch.
Vidas: So it is a term which describes a piece specifically for keyboard instruments. “To touch the keyboard,” basically. So, in early Baroque times, Gabrieli, Merula, and Frescobaldi and others--they all wrote toccatas. So sometimes, they were improvisation-based pieces; but later on, they started to add imitative sections, like in the fugue, but there were no fugues in that time. So they would call them differently. What was the precursor of the fugue in those days?
Ausra: Ricercar, and canzona, of course.
Vidas: Mhm. So, those sections between the free improvisatory toccata passages were like ricercars.
Ausra: Sure. And what is the easiest and the hardest toccata that you have played, Vidas?
Vidas: The easiest was probably by Boëllmann. Or maybe by myself. I wrote a few toccatas, too. I wrote a toccata on themes by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis back in 2011. I first improvised this piece in the concert during a live performance at the Philharmonic hall in Vilnius, Lithuania, and later came back and wrote down and expanded and polished the written-out version. So it’s not a difficult piece, but it has this toccata-like figurations and a nice chorale section in the middle. (I don’t have to say nice, right? Other people have to say nice.)
Ausra: Yes, and what is the hardest toccata?
Vidas: And the hardest toccata probably is by Maurice Duruflé.
Ausra: Oh, I’ve thought about it, too.
Vidas: Maurice Duruflé, from the Suite op. 5.
Ausra: Yes, I think it’s the op. 5.
Vidas: Yes, so the prelude for the suite is not too difficult, dark mood, and long, prelude in slow motion; and then the sicilienne, the second movement, is like a dance, rocking rhythm, back and forth, but not too difficult, too. But then the toccata comes, and that’s a challenging piece. What about “Dieu Parmi Nous” by Messiaen? Is it difficult?
Ausra: Well, it is difficult…
Vidas: But easier than Duruflé.
Ausra: Yes, I think so, it’s easier than Duruflé.
Vidas: So, other French composers also have wrote other toccatas.
Ausra: Like the most famous, probably, one by Widor.
Vidas: Widor toccata...Like every symphony by the French composers must end in a finale; and finales, a lot of times have toccata-like motoric motion, right?
Ausra: Sure, like the last movement of Vierne’s First Symphony or the Third, I had played finale; I actually played the whole symphony, the Third Symphony by Louis Vierne; and it wasn’t so hard, but it always sounds very nice and grand.
Vidas: What about, what was your least difficult--the easiest toccata, for you?
Ausra: Hmm...Maybe by Frescobaldi. And actually, the easiest toccatas to play are toccatas per l’elevatione. But of course, it’s a different genre than the regular toccata.
Vidas: Yeah, no fast motion, no virtuoso passages at all. That was another occasion for elevation section of the mass. So you would not play very fast there.
Vidas: And what about the most challenging toccata for you?
Ausra: Well, let me think about it.
Vidas: You asked me this question, so I give it back to you!
Ausra: I don’t know, at one point it probably was Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C-Major by J. S. Bach.
Ausra: It’s quite challenging, not because it’s technically so difficult, but it has all those various episodes, and to put them together like, grand opening of the hands, and then you have pedal solo, and then all things together...That’s a nice piece but it has its hard things.
Vidas: Exactly. To play toccata alone is not too difficult, but when you play it with the fugue--Toccata Adagio and Fugue--as a cycle, then it’s challenging enough.
Ausra: Yes, because that fugue has that fast tempo, and it’s a dance fugue, so it’s not easy.
Vidas: So guys, start with Boëllmann, I would say, then go to Gigout; Dubois, it’s probably also doable, too. So three toccatas, right? For starters. Easy toccatas. And then, if you like more French stuff, then you can…
Ausra: Play Widor!
Vidas: Play Widor, yeah. But then you need a good manual technique for that.
Ausra: But it’s also nice thing about practicing French toccatas--that you can do much of your work on the piano, if you have a piano at home; because it fits so nice to piano keyboard. And that’s a very good way to practice, as you know; and then later you will add the pedals when you will have access to the organ.
Vidas: So guys, I hope this was useful to you; and remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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