Barber’s Toccata Festiva: A Celebratory Flourish for Organ and Orchestra

On a day in 1960, Mary Curtis Zimbalist phoned Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with exciting news. The wealthy patron and founder of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music had decided to provide the Academy of Music, the orchestra’s home at the time, with a pipe organ. Additionally, Zimbalist would commission Samuel Barber, the esteemed American composer who had enrolled in Curtis’ first class in 1924, to write a piece for the dedication.

At the time of its completion, the instrument, made by the Aeolian-Skinner Company of Boston, was the largest movable pipe organ in the world. Constructed at a cost of $150,000, it boasted 4,102 pipes, three manuals, and 73 stops. (Richard E. Rodda)

A single-movement showpiece, Barber’s Toccata Festiva, Op. 36 showcased the organ, while treating the instrumental voices of the orchestra as additional stops. The inaugural concert on September 20, 1960 featured Paul Callaway, organist and choir director of Washington’s National Cathedral, with Ormandy (in his 25th season as music director) and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Toccata Festiva begins with a blazing flash of virtuosity and tonal color. The entire work develops from a single motif, introduced around the 46 second mark, which undergoes adventurous transformation as the piece unfolds. In the middle is an extended cadenza using only the organ pedals. In Barber’s hands, the organ is an unpredictable beast, moving from quiet, trembling mystery to titanic power. In the final bars, its awesome wall of sound achieves a celebratory flourish in A major.

This performance, recorded in September of 2019, features Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony:


  • Barber: Toccata Festiva, Op. 36, Olivier Latry, Christoph Eschenbach, The Philadelphia Orchestra Amazon

Featured Image: architectural details at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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