An earlier question mentions the disputed authorship of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Several musicologists allege that the work has stylistic elements that are problematic for the period in which it was supposedly written, while others present various explanations justifying the unusual traits, and still others appear not to take the authorship question seriously.

What’s the scholarly consensus here? How serious is the BWV 565 authorship question? Is it just a curiosity, or does it have any significant ramifications for musicology?

3 Answers 3


Generally speaking, a minority of Bach scholars question the piece's attribution. Christoph Wolf, who is for many the top Bach authority does not question the piece's attribution at all.

For what it's worth, the mark's against Bach's authorship can mostly be explained away. There is no direct evidence against his authorship, unlike some other works where the authorship is more easily disputed.

Just to take two:

  • Parallel octaves throughout the opening of the toccata

Writing Parallel octaves, while strictly forbidden in counterpoint is a very natural thing to do on an organ, especially if youre options for registration are limited. Essentially, to make the organ play louder a composer would have to write harmonies with more notes. Bach wrote many pieces to demonstrate how loud, and powerful the organs he was using were.

  • True subdominant answers in the fugue

This is perfectly normal in Bach's work, and was known before Bach's time. Buxtehude did this.

There are many theories for why the piece is so different (it was written for Violin, or by a younger, more improvisatory Bach)

Compared to other pieces accused of being misattributed, for instance the Albinoni Adagio in G minor (which is certainly forged), there is little direct evidence to prove or disprove Bach's authorship. Just criticism of style.

This forum thread has some interesting discussion on the topic: http://classicalmusicmayhem.freeforums.org/bach-attrib-toccata-fugue-in-d-minor-bwv-565-t1818-30.html

As of today, no one has definitively proven it wasn't Bach.

  • 1
    Nice answer, thank you! I'm curious about the parallel octave claim in particular, and can't seem to track it down. The majority of "parallel octaves" I can think of in the opening don't even deserve that term since they are simply doublings of a single voice. If that counted as parallel octaves, then you'd be committing a contrapuntal error every time you had the flute play along with the violins or the basses play along with the cellos! Do you have a link to the original parallel octave claim? Jun 23, 2014 at 22:35
  • 1
    It's on wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toccata_and_Fugue_in_D_minor,_BWV_565 - and yes, these octaves can be thought of as "orchestration" octaves. Jun 23, 2014 at 22:37
  • Hmmm, if even Wolff gives credence to the idea (even if only to say they exist simply to compensate for a poor organ), then there must be more to it than just the doublings I'm talking about. The wikipedia article doesn't get specific about where they are, but it must be more explicitly contrapuntal than those doublings to even warrant mentioning. Jun 23, 2014 at 23:05
  • What about the basso continuo missing from that piece as well its general structure and style, quite unchareacteristic of Bach's keyboard pieces?
    – user95077
    Oct 16, 2023 at 10:48
  • "especially if your options for registration are limited": also, if the piece calls for a unison passage, why not use both hands? What's the other one going to do? Hold a lighter in the air?
    – phoog
    Oct 16, 2023 at 19:25

A theory I heard from an organ builder (no idea whether it was his own one or from somewhere else) is that it was an organ test piece (Bach was a feared organ tester and likely a driving force for several innovations by Silbermann who tried to get the better of him). The alternation of high, fast, sparsely registered passages with low fully registered descending passages ending in full chords has large differences in air usage. Without compensating bellows ("Schwimmerbälge", nowadays standard), the inertia of the weighted large main bellows would not accommodate the sudden changes in air usage and would starve the start of the heavy passages and overblow the start of the light passages.

Part of what makes the piece flashy for human listeners (in spite of not being of the same counterpuntal complexity one is used to with Bach) is also making it hard work for the organ, and it tends not to work well on unmodified organs predating the later Silbermann period.


On the other hand, the earliest known copy was not in Bach's hand, nor is the composer listed. It is full of Italian musical directions and articulation marks that are completely uncharacteristic of Bach. It was first attributed to Bach in a collection of organ works prepared by Felix Mendelssohn — but we don't know why he made the attribution. It was in his repertoire and he simply liked it. In other words, while you can't disprove Bach's authorship, you can't prove it either. There is no hard evidence either way.

It is a lovely piece, whoever wrote it.

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    This answer is sadly factually wrong, which is why I've reluctantly downvoted it. While we do not have a copy in Bach's hand (which is also the case for other works, including a good few whose authorship is beyond reproach), there is indeed at least one manuscript copy (dating well before Mendelssohn) which lists him as composer (ex., dated mid 18th century: bach-digital.de/receive/BachDigitalSource_source_00001657).
    – AlexJ
    Oct 16, 2023 at 15:02

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