The Toccata; Keyboard Brilliance: Khachaturian and Beyond

I hope that you enjoy my performance of Khachaturian’s Toccata (1932), as well as this SoundCloud file of my newly composed Toccata Brevis for piano and percussion (2018).

One of my favorite genres identified primarily with the piano is the toccata. Literally a “touch piece,” the toccata is a keyboard work dating back to the Renaissance. Toccatas, by their nature, tend to explore quick-moving, often driving figures in a perpetual motion framework.

Frescobaldi, Buxtehude, JS Bach, CPE Bach and others all composed engaging and, in some cases, innovative toccatas during the late Renaissance and Baroque/Roccoco Periods. As was his wont, JS Bach took the traditional motoric toccata and expanded it into a multi-sectional work — often including contrasting Adagio espressivo sections, fugues, gigues and other material (both suite and non-suite derived) for a multi-faceted effect.

As the piano ascended during the latter 18th and 19th Centuries, the toccata fell somewhat out of favor (notwithstanding the titanic work of this title by Robert Schumann).

The 20th Century saw something of a resurgence of the toccata as a tour-de-force, harkening back to its Renaissance perpetual motions roots. Composers as diverse as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Serge Prokofiev, Frances Poulenc, Ned Rorem, Robert Muczynski, George Rochberg sought to explore this format, often to brilliant effect.


My favorite example of the 20th-Century toccata, however, is that of the Armenian Soviet-era composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978).

Perhaps his best-known work for piano, aside from his piano concerto, Khachaturian’s Toccata certainly incorporates traditional elements that one would expect to find in such a work (rapid-fire scalar and arpeggiated patters, a wealth of repeated notes, robust open octaves and chords), all set in a typical Khachaturian “exotic” modal harmonic language,

But it is the contrasting more relaxed and expansive espressivo section which reveals the lyrical gifts of the composer. The sudden entrance and development of a very tender and rich melodic line instantly transports the listener to a land of lush harmonies and wistful gestures. This is where Khachaturian’s melodic and textural gifts are most evident, using the naturally resonant qualities of the bass of the piano to add body to the melody and supporting harmonies.

After reaching a literal high-point, a brief energetic dotted figure brings us back to the original driving 16th-note motive, with the perpetual motion continuing unabated to the end.

The toccata is a favorite genre of mine, precisely because it embraces elements of fantasy through the exploration of the unique qualities and strengths of keyboard instruments. In the right hands, the toccata is a captivating virtuosic medium — demanding skill, sweep and control from the player.

How much fun is that?