Inside the Music | Evolution of Form | Late Baroque | Classical
Forms such as the toccata and prelude, which began in the Renaissance as improvised ‘warm-up’ pieces, became more substantial virtuoso keyboard compositions in the late Baroque era, though they retained their introductory function. Alessandro Scarlatti’s harpsichord toccatas expanded the form to embrace a series of contrasting sections, some of them in strict styles – perhaps fugal or variations on a ground bass. J. S. Bach’s harpsichord toccatas continued this practice, moving between free rhapsodic sections, free sections in regular rhythms, sombre adagios and lively fugues. His organ toccatas may be genuine introductory pieces followed by a separate fugue, or, like those of Buxtehude, they may combine free and fugal writing. The famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor is typical of his style: after a short free introduction, the toccata itself is not rhapsodic but rhythmically insistent, with a dense texture of rapid notes ranging up and down the keyboards.
J. S. Bach’s organ preludes similarly precede fugues. Those for harpsichord may be paired with fugues (as in The Well-Tempered Clavier) or begin a suite of dances (as in the English suites). The influence of Italian and French styles is evident: the contrasts of texture and pace characteristic of the Italian concerto are found in some of the preludes for organ and harpsichord, while those of the English suites reflect the French harpsichord style in their use of ornaments and style brisé (the spreading out of the notes of a chord in order to sustain the sound).
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