What is it about Toccatas? Mention Widor or Boellmann, Gigout or Dubois and organists all over the world start recounting their stories of when they played XX’s Toccata in St. X in a concert on a wet Sunday afternoon in London/Paris/New York etc… Ask an audience for requests and they will inevitably want to hear Widor’s Toccata, or Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor.
So what is so special about these pieces? Is it merely their titles? Is it just an image they conjure in our heads? Or is there something more?
I recently dug out my copies of the Dubois and Gigout Toccatas. Both are movements from books of organ music written by the composers for “normal” church use. In Dubois’ case, his Toccata is No. 3 of his 12 Pieces for Organ, Gigout’s is his No. 4 of Ten Pieces for Organ.
Dubois was a very old-fashioned musician. He was organist and choirmaster of different Paris churches, including successor to Franck at St Clotilde and later succeeding Saint-Saens at La Madeleine. He was thrown out of the Paris Conservatory (which he ran) for refusing to modernise things. He fought regularly with students such as Ravel and Debussy. After he was basically fired from his position (the public version of the story was merely that his retirement was moved forward…), Fauré took over and was required by the government to ensure that things became more modern!
Gigout was a much more relaxed character. He spent 62 years as the organist of the famous Paris church St Augustin. He himself made “recordings” on the Welte Philharmonic recording organ (there’s a little link to our recent theatre organ by Welte!) and even founded his own music school (but also taught at the Paris Conservatory). He was apparently a formidable improviser. He was well connected too – his niece married Boellmann, whom he also taught.
An online student had asked me for advice on learning an “easy” toccata for a beginner organist. He himself is an experienced and talented piano player and wants to start learning the organ – in his own words – just for fun. I immediately thought of the two above Toccatas as they are both suitable for him requiring only moderate pedal coordination. The Gigout features the main theme in the pedals, but it’s not technically challenging to play – the work is mainly in the hands. Dubois on the other hand has hardly any pedal to speak of, with all the work going to the hands.
I personally find the Dubois more suitable for him to play as there is more to learn as an organist. The centre section of the Toccata features an ultra-legato passage in B Major, basically a 4-part chorale. On a piano, legato can be assisted by the use of the sustain pedal, on the organ, it’s not that easy. Notes continue playing until you let go, letting go for even a split second results in a break in the wind supply and a break in the music.
One of the most difficult features of French Romantic organ music to master is the strict use of legato. This often calls for some rather “un-pianistic” finger substitutions, finger sliding and thumb-legato. It’s not the most elegant of techniques out there, but once mastered, great fun and very effective. Actually, it’s 100% necessary for most music of this era, so it’s worth getting to grips with. Literally…
Here’s my attempt at sight-reading Dubois’ Toccata for YouTube. I include a demonstration of the above legato techniques and then proceed to bashing my way through the whole piece after only around 30 minutes’ of practice… Please excuse the mistakes!