Exploring the Haunting Allure of Bach’s Organ Masterpiece – Toccata and Fugue

ByQuyen Anne

Jun 17, 2023

On New Year’s Eve, 1931, New York City audiences entered theaters to watch the third film from director Rouben Mamoulian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even if they weren’t familiar with the content of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story, they knew they were in for something exceptionally spooky as soon as the opening credits began to roll:

That’s the sound of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which is forever associated with the ghastly and macabre sights one expects to see in horror films. But why is this masterful work for organ something we associate with cinematic terror, especially when there are many other works with explicitly sinister titles? (Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre and Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead instantly come to mind.)

It really comes down to cultural expectations, comfort with the familiar — and the influence this piece had on early film. But first, some background.

The Toccata and Fugue is most commonly attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, but since the 1960’s, musicologists have opened the issue of authorship up for debate. And that’s because there are several aspects of the piece that would have been unusual for organ works of that time and place. For starters, there are the parallel octaves of the opening (a compositional faux pas), the solo pedal statement of the fugal subject, and the conclusion of the work on a minor plagal (the “Amen”) cadence. These compositional idiosyncrasies have led some scholars to believe that the piece was written by a composer born a generation or two after J.S., but still close to the Bach family; others think that it was actually an organ transcription for a violin work; or that it was written by a young Bach, who had yet to mature as a composer.

Regardless of who wrote it or when, the piece was ultimately attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach — and remained unknown for decades. That all changed in 1833 when Felix Mendelssohn, ever the Bach fanboy, finally got the piece published. He considered it a rather accessible piece that anyone could enjoy, writing that it was “at the same time learned and something for the [common] people.” Seven years after publication, Mendelssohn sat down to give the piece it’s first major public performance. Music critic Robert Schumann was among those in attendance, and he wrote that the piece exhibited a certain “Bachian humor.” Liszt mastered the piece too, and in 1899 Busoni wrote a dramatic piano transcription of the work.

But it was the organ piece’s use during the silent film era that cemented its status as the go-to spooky music — a decade before Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premiered on the silver screen. In the early days of film, theaters would keep a house organist or pianist around to provide some musical context for the silent action happening onscreen. Something extra-freaky or ghoulish going down? The house organist knew that the Toccata and Fugue would be the perfect accompaniment.

1940 was another pivotal year for the piece. It was then that Disney released Fantasia, it’s pseudo-synesthesic musical trip that included a new arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue for orchestra. It was written by conductor Leopold Stokowski, and was the first of the film’s segments. The orchestration was wildly popular, and introduced many listeners to the thundering music.

In 1954, the complicated Captain Nemo played it in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 1962, it was used to emphasize the horror that pervaded the Phantom of the Opera. The association was sticky enough to prompt some enthusiasts to use it in the soundtracks for earlier film adaptations of the story:

And in 1975, it introduced the violently dystopic world of Rollerball:

We would be remiss, however, to not address the fact that the piece has been used so much that it has passed into the inescapable black hole of musical cliché. University of Texas Professor Emeritus of Music Theory David P. Neumeyer writes:

“Historical concert works are not immune to topical transformation through repeated use over a period of time. J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, is certainly historical, but its repeated use in films — beginning with film performance well before the sound film era — led to its cliché status … An instance of [University of Washington Film Professor Claudia] Gorbman’s cinematic musical code ‘hardening’ into the cultural musical code.”

Basically, it’s pretty much impossible to separate the piece from its cultural connotations. Even during its run as a silent-film favorite, there were grumblings of its overuse. In Silent Film Sound, author Rick Altman tells of the American Organist editor’s reaction to the Rialto Theatre organist John D.M. Priest’s choice to play the popular work: “Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor sounds dangerously near to an organ recital and I don’t know why Mr. Priest included it in the program.”

In 1950, less than 20 years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paramount Pictures released Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a combination of film noir and black comedy. The movie contained a not-so-subtle jab at the Toccata and Fugue’s usage in the horror genre, when it was used as the unsettling butler’s piece of choice:

Since then, it’s been used as a cue for the comically villainous Professor Fate in 1965’s The Great Race:

in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:
 And even in the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence action-comedy Bad Boys II, which I will link to so we can remain innocent from sharing examples of over the top, not-safe-for-work language right here on the site.

In a way, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is the perfect piece of Halloween music. It’s familiar, and has all the ingredients of the quintessential piece of terrifying music. But, thanks to our desensitization to its horror, all of those elements give way to a sort of delightful kitsch that taps into our nostalgic nerve and carries a bit of camp — just like the spookiest day of the year.

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