The Toccata Syndrome

Just as in the last post about volume, let’s have a look at something that is found in Melosophia, but definitely also in the world at large.

ornament5bWe are always, well, many of us most of time, impressed by music that is hard to play, and musicians who can play very fast. This is a central aspect of “virtuosity”. That that word is related to virtuous and virtue is often forgotten, if known at all.

The word “toccata” is related to touch. Grove defines it as A piece intended primarily as a display of manual dexterity, often free in form and almost always for a solo keyboard instrument. I would suggest that the toccata is Yang in quality, outwardly directed, active, showy, manly.

It or its principle can be seen as a sort of bragging, sometimes even a circus act.

piano hoffnungAs a classical musician I have to admit that this impulse — not one of our highest impulses — is alive and well in the classical field, in many a pianist and singer, not to mention violinist and bassoonist.


The impulse sometimes grows into a syndrome.

As a music critic I quite often meet with new, contemporary music that has gotten joyfully stuck in this groove. I would call this groove the Toccata Syndrome, in turn part of larger stylistic trend that I call neo-populism.

Let me clarify neo-populism. After many a year of totally ignoring the audience (and of course being ignored BY them) some composers felt a great longing to return to the fold and a great thirst for the energy drink Applause. Like a dehydrated wanderer in the desert they almost started hallucinating about success with the public, about being carried in the streets by a cheering mob. Some of them turned to writing toccatas (not necessarily calling them that).

I myself write quite difficult music at times but not with a view of eliciting a great roar at the end. But this is what I hear in some modern pieces where the final applause almost seems to be a calculated part of the piece. The cheer comes right after that incredibly virtuoso run that ends in a fabulous tutti chordBravo!!!

Talk about being a like-whore, or applause-whore.

Those are maybe too harsh words, because this show or demonstration of what one can do, as composer or musician (I recall a conductor almost committing hara-kiri during Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that practically plays itself) seems to be, if not Universal, at least very human. And by no means only a male impulse when you consider that females — in more subtle ways — are just as much showing (off) themselves and their “talents”. The stress need not be on playing or singing but on lifting up, stretching, accentuating, coloring, exposing.

In this non-musical, non-obvious sense many women have even more toccata impulse than men. “Display of manual dexterity” can be the putting on of make-up


Enough talk, let’s have some music. Here is a example of not manual but pedal dexterity, very much in the toccata spirit.

And now, fasten your seat belts! Here comes a musical firework from the man whose playing tells you (at least me) to practice more….

Finally an example of a more contemporary “toccata”. Wait for the roar at the end.

You might object that I am too critical here. Why heap abuse on a natural impulse?

You could be right. As to these three examples, the first I find impressive, the second fantastic, in execution and the ingenuity of the arrangement. The third disturbs me a bit.


Because it makes me, the listener, a mere admirer. The focus is on what the musicians are doing, on technique and dexterity. I discover really nothing about myself, more than that I am impressed.

The best music, I would suggest, goes both ways; it points both to the music/musician, and to the listener. It includes them both in a marriage that one could almost call “democratic”. Which is not the case with a football star and football supporters. Or a virtuoso musician and a wildly cheering audience.

By all means, let us musicians show the world what we can do. But let that doing also include how SLOW and SOFT we can play….

One thought on “The Toccata Syndrome”

  1. GENIALISKT!!! Spela långsamt och svagt är det ABSOLUT svåraste som finns och det bästa. Jag tackar för detta, tänkvärda. Visst ska bravadot ha sin plats i musiken. Men det är dax att låta hela känslopaletten finnas med. Även pianissimot. Kära medmusikanter och musikälskare: låt oss inte dråsa ner till idrottens värdeskalor.

    Leve musiken/ sov gott.

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