Organ Playing: How to Play Widor’s Toccata?

Toccata for organ from the 5th symphony by Charles-Marie Widor is one of the most popular organ works, second only to Bach’s D minor toccata. Rapid tempo, perpetual toccata figuration and splendid harmonies make it a perfect piece for recital, postlude, or wedding recessional. It is a dream for many organists to be able to play this piece. In this article, I will give you tips on playing Widor’s toccata on the organ.

Practice on the piano. Since this toccata requires a fairly well-developed piano technique, I suggest you practice this piece on the piano. If you play it on the piano, you will soon notice any uneven notes. Try to work on making all notes sound even and precise. The more you practice this piece on the piano, the more comfortable it will be to play it on the organ.

Do not rush. Practice this piece in a slow tempo because it is easy to play it too fast. If you play it in a fast tempo, chances are that the notes will sound sloppy and your playing will lack precision and clarity. Even after you master this toccata and perform it in public, take a rather moderate tempo. By playing too fast, it is a high risk of missing important structural and harmonic elements. In fact, Widor himself criticized organists, who play this piece too fast.

Observe precise staccato articulation. When playing the sixteenth-note figuration, try to achieve the precise staccato. Many organists miss this important point and slur the notes which in a rapid tempo and vast acoustical space will lack clarity. The eighth notes in the other hand should also be played staccato. The best way to perform staccato in a French tradition is by shortening the notes by a half, e.g. by playing sixteenth notes and making sixteenth note rests.

Option: play one octave lower. If you perform this piece on the organ which has screamy and high-pitched mixtures and very few 8′ foundation stops in the manuals, you can play it one octave lower without the 16′ stops. Playing this way will give your organ more gravity and the mixture sound will not be as screamy. This toccata is especially suited for such a trick because the left hand never goes below tenor C.

Play scales in double thirds and sixths on the piano. As you probably are aware, this toccata requires to have a fairly advanced piano technique. This means, that your fingers must have the necessary dexterity, evenness, and independence. One of the best ways to achieve such a skill is by regularly practicing scales in double thirds and sixths on the piano. In order to successfully master such scales in all major and minor keys, you will have to use finger substitution technique to achieve a perfect legato.

If you follow my suggestions and practice this toccata in a slow tempo, observing a precise staccato on the piano, and develop your technique by playing scales in double thirds and sixths, you can successfully master this wonderful composition. Just be patient, have your goal in mind, stick to your plan and your performance level of this toccata will become much higher.

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