The Story Behind Classical Music’s Most Eerie Piece

Oct 30, 2015

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” is probably the single most prolific work in pipe organ repertoire, but for nearly a century after its composition, it wasn’t even published.

During his lifetime, Bach was perhaps best known as the musical director of the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, where he was reputed to be a virtuoso organist. While musical director, Bach composed some of his most noted works, including the “St. John” Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations. It is during this period that many believe Bach also composed “Toccata and Fugue.”

However, in recent years, the idea that Bach even wrote “Toccata and Fugue” has been called into question. Unlike many of Bach’s works, the piece’s first known manuscript isn’t by the composer himself, but Johannes Ringk, a younger German organist and composer. The manuscript cites Bach as the author, but estimates say the manuscript may have been written as late as ten years after Bach’s death. Any definitive proof of the piece’s origin has been lost to time.

“Toccata and Fugue” first gained widespread popularity in the mid 1800s, after the widely known composer Felix Mendelssohn began to resuscitate some of Bach’s lesser-known organ works for his own use. In 1833, Mendelssohn and his friend, a music critic, began to widely distribute “Toccata and Fugue” as the third volume to a collection of Bach’s then lesser known organ works. By 1870, the piece had picked up steam and was regularly featured in compendiums of Bach’s works.

It wasn’t until 1931, when “Toccata and Fugue” began appearing as standard accompaniment to the silent film version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that the piece gained its reputation for being spooky. Today, it has been featured in dozens of films, TV shows and commercials, truly earning it the reputation of one of classical music’s most heard pieces.