The Kennedy Center

Toccata Festiva

About the Work

Samuel Barber Composer: Samuel Barber
© Thomas May

Igor Stravinsky once impishly referred to the organ as "the monster [that] never breathes." He was reflecting a bias against this mighty instrument as a relic of the past with no place in the modern concert hall - a bias that itself has happily become outdated thanks to the advocacy of adventurous virtuosos like Cameron Carpenter. In fact, the organ has played an important role in the music of numerous American composers over the past century. Aaron Copland initially made his reputation with his so-called Organ Symphony of 1924. For his part, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) once held a position in his early teens as organist at Westminster Church in his native West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Barber drew on some of these memories decades later when he was commissioned in 1960 to write Toccata Festiva, an occasional work for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy pairing organ and orchestra. The occasion was to inaugurate an impressive brand-new organ for the Academy of Music in Philadelphia that had been the gift of Mary Curtis Zimbalist. Also one of Barber's longtime patrons, Zimbalist not only paid for the organ ($150,000 in 1960 dollars) but commissioned the new piece to present it as well. (Barber graciously declined to accept any fee.) According to Barber's authoritative biographer, Barbara B. Heyman, the new Aeolian-Skinner organ was at the time of its building "the largest movable pipe organ in the world, weighing 200,000 pounds and having 4,102 pipes, three manuals, and seventy-three stops." Its installation also marked the first time that Philadelphia could boast an organ in a concert hall, "in addition to those in churches or, most famous of all, in Wanamaker's Department Store, where an elephantine organ had been installed in the grand court during the thirties."

Barber scored his single-movement piece for a correspondingly grandiose orchestra so as to, well, pull out all the stops with regard to the organ and the virtuosic Philadelphia Orchestra alike. The orchestra can hardly be said merely to "accompany the instrument here: it engages in genuine dialogue with the solo instrument, mirroring the latter's personality. For the premiere, Barber prevailed on the National Cathedral's organist and choir director of the time, the legendary Paul Callaway, to perform as the organ soloist.

The term "toccata" (an Italian word literally meaning "touched" - as in what the player does to the keys) refers to the Baroque genre of virtuoso display pieces (think "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" by Bach). Barber blends this Baroque perspective with his signature lyricism, incorporating both extroverted fanfare music and dance-like figurations. A rhythmically striking theme (cast in an unusual metrical pattern of 5/8) serves to generate most of the material. At one point Barber writes a cadenza for the organ's pedals, thus additionally taking on the role of choreographer as he sets the soloist's feet to a mad dance.