Defining Terms: Toccata
At a little past 11:30 this morning, after you of course have made your contribution to New England Public Radio, you can sit back and enjoy a performance by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony of the distinguished American composer Paul Creston's "Toccata." Toccata? How was it that Creston (above right) chose for the title of a rousing and virtuosic orchestral work a term derived from the Italian word meaning "to touch?"
One of the things my music history profs at UConn, especially the late Drs. Brian Klitz and Bruce Bellingham, always instilled in their students is that the proper answer to the question "what does this musical term mean?" is always "it means different things at different times." It got so that we would deliver this answer in a kind of third-grade "yes, teacher" sing-song. That certainly goes for such familiar terms as concerto, symphony and sonata, all of which were once applied to works very unlike those we would most associate with them. And it likewise goes for toccata.
As I said, the term comes from the Italian word meaning "to touch," toccare. And what was being touched in the first toccatas, dating to the early 16th century, were the strings of the lute, or perhaps of the Spanish vihuela da mano. While the pieces that were labeled as such were not completely alike in style, a toccata was generally a rhapsodic, freewheeling work of virtuosic character, showing off the performer's touch, i.e., manual dexterity.
Before the century's end, keyboard composers had picked up on the term for their own works of rhapsodic virtuosity, with in their case the "touchee" being the keys rather than the strings. That's how we got the many important toccatas (I could say "toccate" if I wanted to really impress you) by such giants of the organ and harpsichord as Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jacob Froberger, and of course, Johann Sebastian Bach. You know Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, right? We'll get to the term "fugue" some other time, but that is one heck of a toccata.
And this and other toccatas by Bach were just about it for more than a century, as the term, like other vestiges of the Baroque, fell out of favor. A few of the French romantic organist-composers revived the term for razzle-dazzle works, both Debussy and Ravel placed whirlwind toccatas at the end of neo-Baroque piano suites ("Pour le piano" and "Le tombeau de Couperin," respectively), and both Schumann and Prokofiev employed it for stand-alone piano works on moto perpetuo hyperdrive...but otherwise, the solo toccata went the way of such antique forms as the ricercar and the quodlibet.
So, to get back to Creston's orchestral piece, when did the toccata for larger ensemble come in? Not too far into the genre's history, actually, as the term was also used in the late Renaissance and Baroque for fanfare-like works such as the Toccata that begins Claudio Monteverdi's epoch-making 1607 opera L'Orfeo. And how did a term from lute and keyboard music come to be used for ensemble music? That's not quite certain, though it may be related to the English word "tucket," meaning fanfare for trumpet and drums. Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights called for tuckets (and for sennets, derived from the word "sonata") to add flourishes to their plays. And a very few 20th century composers, such as Samuel Barber and our man Creston, used this "tucket" sense of toccata for works of either fanfarish flourish (Barber) or energetic display (Creston).
So there you have it, at some length. And after all that, I think Drs. Klitz and Bellingham had it right — and much shorter.