Bwv 540 Analysis Essay

The Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540 is an organ work written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The toccata is thought to be written after 1714, and the fugue before 1731. It is thought by some that Bach joined together two previously separate pieces to create this work.



The toccata starts with a large linear canon (imitation theme, one hand imitating the other) over a pedal point in F major. It is then followed by a pedal solo vamping material from the canon. The canon is reiterated with some variations in the dominant in C major. This time the hands are switched, and the left hand leads the right. This is again followed by a long pedal solo. The two large canon flourishes cover 108 measures of the composition. The pedal solos cover 60 measures. The concerto movement exhibits a seven-part structure. The canons and pedal solos effect the departure from the home key of F to the dominant C, and the entire rest of the movement, with its concertante 3-part imitation and striking "proto-waltzes", constitute the harmonic return. This formal pattern is unique within Bach's œuvre.

Hermann Keller expresses his rapture as follows: " At the beginning the extensive linear construction of the two voices in canon, the proud calmness of the solos in the pedal, the piercing chord strokes, the fiery upswing of the second subject, the bold modulatory shifts, the inwardness of the three minor movements, the splendour of the end with the famous third inversion of the seventh chord, who would not be enthralled by that?"[1]

Because of the range of the pedal parts, the organ at Weißenfels, with a pedal compass of f1, may be the organ the composition was written on. The Toccata (as a prelude) is proportionally the largest of all Bach's works in the format of prelude-fugue. It is often treated as a show piece, with the ensuing fugue omitted. The Toccata's rhythmic signature suggests a passepied or a musette, although the monumental scale of the movement does not support these characterizations.

Nor does the harmonic adventurousness: 45 measures after the second pedal solo there is a dominant chord which resolves deceptively to the third-inversiondominant applied to the neapolitan. In particular, the doubled root is found to move outward in contrarychromatic motion to a major 9th; in the bass is a descending augmented unison, which absolutely could not be farther from the expected fifth. Bach implements this powerful deceptive cadence three times in the piece; it would not become idiomatic until Chopin and Tchaikovsky.


The first subject in the fugue is chromatic and ornamental. The second subject has a lot of modulation shifts and is sometimes initially presented as the counter-subject of the first. The Fugue is Bach's only thorough-going double fugue, where two subjects are exposed in separate sections and then combined. The effect is enhanced by the increasing rhythmic activity of the second subject and by the more frequent use of modulation in the final section of the fugue.

The bravura of the F-Major toccata, with its pedal solos and manual virtuosity, contrasts sharply with the rather sober opening of the Fugue. Both represent two diverse aspects of Italian influence: the motoric rhythms and sequential passagework of the Toccata, and the traditional alla breve counterpoint of the Fugue, with its chromaticism, harmonic suspensions, and uninterrupted succession of subjects and answers. These techniques are very similar to those used in the "Dorian" Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538.

Use in popular culture[edit]

The toccata was used prominently in the 1962 film Phaedra starring Anthony Perkins and directed by Jules Dassin.

The toccata opens the piece "The Only Way" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.[2]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Compositions for organ, keyboard and lute by Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Fugue in G minor, BWV 131a (doubtful)
  • Sonatas, BWV 525–530
  • Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532
  • Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor ("Dorian"), BWV 538
  • Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540
  • Fantasia and Fugue in G minor ("Great"), BWV 542
  • Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543
  • Prelude and Fugue in E minor ("Wedge"), BWV 548
  • Eight Short Preludes and Fugues, BWV 553–560 (doubtful)
  • Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 562
  • Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564
  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
  • Prelude (Toccata) and Fugue in E major, BWV 566
  • Fantasia ("Pièce d'Orgue") in G major, BWV 572
  • Fugue in G minor ("Little"), BWV 578
  • Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
  • Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599–644
  • Schübler Chorales, BWV 645–650
  • Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, BWV 651–668
  • Chorale partita Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig, BWV 768
  • Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her", BWV 769
  • Neumeister chorales, BWV 1090–1120
  • Chorale fantasia Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 1128
  • Aria variata alla maniera italiana
  • Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother
  • Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue
  • English Suites
  • French Suites
  • Goldberg Variations (discography, Gould recording)
  • Inventions and Sinfonias
  • Italian Concerto
  • Overture in the French style
  • Partitas for Keyboard (No. 4, No. 6)
  • Prelude in E minor, BWV 855a
  • Six Little Preludes
  • The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893 (I: C, BWV 846, c, BWV 847, C♯, BWV 848, c♯, BWV 849, e, BWV 855, g, BWV 861; II: C, BWV 870, f, BWV 881)
See this one from Bach's church in Leipzig (note Bach's seal attached to the pipes)

Click HERE to read liner notes by Lionel Rogg and Harry Halbreich for the Toccata in F by Bach

 But in Bach’s Toccata in F, you have two snakes, not just one-- like in the caduceus symbol! For the theme starts over again just two measures later, now played with the left hand, even as the right hand continues on, each hand now imitating or "chasing" the other in counterpoint (this is called a canon). The two snakes are twirling around each other. One is played with the right hand; representing the yang current, and one with the left hand; indicating the yin current. It is a round, like "Row Row Row Your Boat" (with only two voices). It is the male and female intertwining together to begin the process of kundalini yoga, elevating sexual energy to spirit. It is also a spiralling double helix. In the second canon (Chakra Two section), the hands switch and the right hand imitates the left, thus reversing the direction in which the vortex moves.

And the pole in the center is provided by the held-down pedal note underlying the whole magnificent theme. This OM-like sound of the held pedal note is similar in effect to the tamboura in Indian music. Hear this sound easily in the versions by Winters, Dewar, Alain, Campolieta, Robinson, Leistra and others heard on You Tube.


The notes of the "snake" theme often vary from the strict up/down alternation, indicating shifting polarities between the 3 parts of the soul (lower, middle and upper chakras); about which more below. Each of the two canon themes (representing Chakras One and Two) has 54 bars (108 total, a sacred number), and each theme has 7 portions, with 7 to 8 measures each. Throughout this piece, similar patterns appear on many levels, like a fractile or hologram, and they often illustrate the chakras. For example, in two of these portions, notes in the third measure leap upward optimistically, like the energy released in the third chakra. Twice as well, the repeating basic theme starts one note higher each time, just like moving up the chakras, and during the second canon this 7-measure movement starts with C and ends with B, thereby correlating with how the tones are traditionally linked to each chakra:

The key changes in the 4th measure of this sequence (moving up from F to B-flat in the first canon, and up from C to F in the second), representing the inner transformation that takes place at the heart chakra. Later we move back down to the original key, like the downward chakra current.
See the whole score here in pdf

 Every section has a liberating part and a manifesting part. After the first canon (with the right hand leading the way, representing the first chakra’s yang polarity), the theme is then played all by itself on the pedals. The foot-pounding solo, and the downward thrust of the music, grounds us and pulls us down toward the roots, or into the dark of the base chakra, just like the manifesting chakra current does, until the very last note leaves us dangling in chaos-- as if out of tune. (In some editions of the Toccata, this note has been changed to a more harmonious dominant note.)

Notice how, during the last 18 bars (and again in the last 22 bars of the second pedal solo), the theme zig-zags downward for 6 notes, then upward for 6 notes, just like the snakes of the caduceus. I think the pedal solos are the most perfect picture of the chakras to be found in music.

Then at last, three grand chords immediately and boldly announce the next chakra, in which we move upward again.

The intertwining snake theme turns from left to right

 The second section brings to life the second chakra, located in the sacrum area of the lower abdomen. We hear the same canon, composed of the same notes; the theme repeating itself two bars later in the other hand as before; only this time, things are switched around. The left hand starts instead, reversing the spiral's direction of movement, and it also begins lower down in the dominant key of C major (it soon returns to F, and then back again to C; just as in the first canon it starts with F and moves to B Flat and back). The left hand leading clearly symbolizes the feminine nature of this center, as Anodea Judith describes it. Once again the held pedal note majestically underlies the snake's lusty movement, just like the great OM sound underlying all creation. Now the "snake" theme not only gives us a joyous celebration, but also conveys the "sweetness" for which Chakra 2 is named. The cosmic snake spirit is speaking to us in this music.


Chakra Three, transition

The Chariot theme; a portal of power

 Suddenly the music bursts into flames, as we move into the 3rd chakra. "Piercing chords" arouse us to rise up and move. Judith indeed compares chakra 3 to the fire element. What’s more, she says, it represents our courage, power and will. Indeed, any virtuoso organist who has played Bach’s Toccata in F can testify that it takes courage to play the next three sections! Now both hands and feet are playing elaborate themes all at once. Entering this third section, representing the solar-plexus or power center, it seems like a change of state has occured, from the more joyful but dense tamas phase, to the passionate and ambitious rajas phase. We enter it through a portal of power, which is also the end of the second chakra section.


Begins with a fiery and uplifting arpeggio, the first hearing of the liberating or uplifting theme

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