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Composed: 1960

Length: c. 15 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbal, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), strings, and solo organ

About this Piece

As large organs became more common in new concert halls in the later 19th century, a modest repertory of celebratory music for organ and orchestra also began developing. Perhaps the most exuberant of all such pieces is the Toccata Festiva Samuel Barber composed for the inauguration of a new organ at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Mary Curtis Zimbalist, a friend and patron of the composer since his youth at the Curtis Institute, funded the organ and also commissioned this piece. Paul Callaway, the organist and music director at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., played the organ at the premiere in September 1960, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Barber shapes his piece much like the first movement of a typical Romantic concerto. It begins boldly, with an edgy, rushing fanfare in A minor, introduced by the orchestra, then picked up by the organ. At the end of this opening section the organ presents a dotted-rhythm figure in 5/8 meter that will become very important. Here, it leads into a slow, lyrical theme, first in the strings, then the organ.

The little dotted figure begins to make its presence felt, however, as a quietly dancing countermelody. Listen to it on the organ’s reed pipes, then in the orchestra’s English horn. Barber treats solo instruments in the orchestra like solo stops on the organ, and vice-versa, making the combination into a sort of über-organ.

The swirling fanfare returns, ushering in a section that develops and mixes all the motivic elements in a flurry of metrical and rhythmic games. As another example of Barber’s ideas about solo scoring, there is a trumpet call in the organ with cues in the orchestral trumpet part (for performances with an organ lacking a strong trumpet stop).

After further motivic conflation, the organist gets an extraordinary cadenza for the pedals. This is also based on thematic bits in a Bachian manner, combining the virtuosity of the pedal passages in Bach’s early toccatas with Bach’s style in the solo cello suites, wringing contrapuntal implications from basically a single line.

The orchestra comes quietly back, the English horn and clarinets again sounding like solo reed stops, as Barber recapitulates his themes into a big, blazing finish in A major.

– John Henken