Toccata is from toccare, to touch, and is the name of a kind of instrumental composition originating in the beginning of the 17th century.
As the term Sonata is derived from the verb suonare, to sound, and may thus be described as a sound piece, or Tonstuck, so the similarly formed term Toccata represents a touch piece, or a composition intended to exhibit the touch and execution of the performer.
In this respect it is almost synonymous with the prelude and fantasia; but it has its special characteristics, which are so varied as to make them difficult to define clearly.
The most obvious are a very flowing movement in notes of equal length and of a homophonous character, there being often indeed in the earlier examples but one part throughout, though occasionally full chords were employed.
There is no decided subject which is made such by repetition, and the whole has the air of a showy improvisation.
Giovanni Gabriele (1557-1613) and Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) were the first writers of any importance who used this form, the Toccatas of the latter being scarcely as brilliant as those of the former, though more elaborate.
Frescobaldi, Luigi Rossi, and Scherer developed the idea and sometimes altered the character of the movement, using chords freely and even contrapuntal passages.
It was Bach, however, who raised the Toccata far beyond all previous and later writers. His toccatas for harpsichord are in many cases a chain of short movements of markedly different tempi and styles.
Bach’s organ toccatas are very grand, one of the finest being that in F, the semiquaver figure of which is treated at great length alternately by the two hands in thirds and sixths over a pedal bass, and then by the pedals alone.
Another in C is equally brilliant. Back sometimes begins and ends with rapid cadenza-like passages in very short notes divided between the two hands, as in the well known Toccata in D minor, with its fugue.
Probably from the fact of its faint individuality the toccata has in later times had but a flickering vitality, and has found scant favor with composers of the first rank.
A collection of six Toccatas for piano published by E. Pauer has resuscitated as prominent specimens one by F. Pollini (not the famous one of his 32) in G, and others by Czerny, Onslow, Clementi, etc.
That by Pollini is of the form and characters of a Bourree, and the others would be better named Etudes in double notes, having all definite subjects and construction.
The same may be said of Schumann’s Toccata in C (op. 7), which is a capital study for practice, and is in sonata form.
Contemporary musicians have given us two or three specimens of real toccatas worth mention, prominent among them being that in G minor by Rheinberger, which is a free fugue of great boldness and power.
The same composer has used the diminutive term toccatina for one of a set of short pieces; and another instance of the use of this term is the Toccatina in E flat by Henselt, a short but very showy and difficult piece.
Dupont published a little PF. Piece entitles Toccatells.
Toccatas by Standford and Walter Macfarren may close our list of modern pieces bearing that name.
In these later examples the unchanging movement of rapid notes, in the manner of the moto perpetuo, has become almost an essential characteristic of the form.