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Music / Toccata and Fugue in D minor

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Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, is perhaps the single most recognizable piece of pipe organ music in the world - or at least the ominous opening is.

If there is an Ominous Pipe Organ in a Haunted House or Creepy Cathedral, there's about 80% chances of it playing the opening bars of the Toccata in D Minor, or more of the piece.

There has been some debate as to whether Bach actually wrote the piece at all. The only manuscript of the work that has survived to the present day was penned by Johannes Ringk, who attributes the piece to Bach; this copy also lacks a date, but is thought to have been written somewhere between 1730 and 1735. The work itself contains a number of stylistic anachronisms, such as the large lack of counterpoint in the toccata, the fugue utilizing subdominant rather than dominant answers, and wrapping up on a plagal cadence, among others. (Then again, the later styles had to draw their inspiration from somewhereperhaps they drew their inspiration from this piece, and Bach actually started it all!) Another theory is that it was written down poorly by one of Bach's students. Another school of thought holds that it may have been originally written for solo violin (possibly by Bach but likely by another unknown composer), and then transcribed by Bach for the organ; several attempts to reconstruct the piece in this manner have been produced. Bach's most recent biographer Christoph Wolff believes that it's definitely by Bach, but that its stylistic oddities can be explained by its being an early work.

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Note that Bach actually wrote two sets of pieces entitled Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but the second (BWV 538) is set apart by its toccata being in the Dorian mode (using a key signature usually used for A minor, i.e. no sharps or flats) for the majority of its duration, a component which gives BWV 538 the "Dorian" nickname in the music world. The fugue is, however, in the traditional natural minor scale (Aeolian mode). This piece is, of course, nowhere near as well-known as BWV 565.

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Examples of works featuring the Toccata:

Anime:

  • In the original Sailor Moon anime Eudial plays the opening chords after luring Sailors Uranus and Neptune into a church filled with traps.

Board Games:

  • The cassette tape board game Shrieks & Creeks plays this in the background during the audio instructions.

Film:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo has a pipe organ onboard the Nautilus, and plays the Toccata along with a good deal of improvisation.
  • 1962's The Phantom of the Opera was the first adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel to add the music piece.
  • The Great Race: Professor Fate has a pipe organ in his mansion, complete with the requisite rendition of the Toccata. Played With in that it's a player pipe organ — all he does is pump the pedals.
  • Got remixed in the soundtrack of Ocean's 8, although without the opening bars.

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