What is it Fantasia ?

Fantasia is a term adopted in the Renaissance for an instrumental composition whose form and invention spring ‘solely from the fantasy and skill of the author who created it’ (Luis de Milán, 1535–6). From the 16th century to the 19th the fantasia tended to retain this subjective licence, and its formal and stylistic characteristics may consequently vary widely from free, improvisatory types to strictly contrapuntal and more or less standard sectional forms.

In the general senses of ‘imagination’, ‘product of the imagination’, ‘caprice’, derivatives of the Greek ‘phantasia’ were current in the principal European languages by the late Middle Ages. The term was used as a title in German keyboard manuscripts before 1520, and in printed tablatures originating as far apart as Valencia, Milan, Nuremberg and perhaps Lyons by 1536. Its earliest appearances in a musical context focus on the imaginative musical ‘idea’, however, rather than on a particular compositional genre. A three-part, imitative, textless composition by Josquin is headed ‘Ile fantazies de Joskin’, but it is doubtful whether this title had generic significance; more probably it was intended to emphasize the ‘freely invented’ (rather than borrowed) nature of the motivic material. Similarly a letter written by the Ferrarese agent Gian to Ercole d’Este on 2 September 1502 refers to Isaac’s four-part instrumental piece La mi la sol la sol la mi (ed. in DTÖ, xxviii, Jg.xiv/1, 1907/R) as ‘uno moteto sopra una fantasia’: here it is clearly the eight-note soggetto ostinato that is signified by the term ‘fantasia’.

From the outset, the term was used interchangeably with other generic names like recercar and Preambel. With Francesco da Milano there is little or no distinction between ‘fantasia’ and ‘recercar’; the same piece often bears different labels in different sources, and both words may even be found in combination (as when Pontus de Tyard describes Francesco sitting down with his lute ‘à rechercher une fantaisie’). But ‘fantasia’ seems to have been the more colloquial name: Bottrigari (1594) spoke of a ricercare from Padovano’s Primo libro as ‘a certain “fantasia” (as the instrumentalists say) of his’. Classification of the fantasia as a kind of prelude occurred especially in Germany and the Netherlands, from the Preambeln of Neusidler and Gerle to Praetorius (who described it under a heading, ‘Of Preludes in their own right’). The word was equated at different times with tentos (Milán), voluntary (Byrd sources, Mace), automaton, which means much the same (Phalèse), capriccio (Lindner, Praetorius, Froberger sources), canzon (Terzi, Banchieri), or fuga (Banchieri, Hagius, Scheidt, Froberger sources). In Spain, the technical benefit of fantasias for ‘exercising the hands’ was frequently emphasized.

The freedom inherited from its Renaissance and 17th-century forebears continued to be the primary characteristic of the 18th-century fantasia: freedom of rhythm and tempo, extending to the omission of bar-lines; unfettered exploitation of instrumental virtuosity; adventurousness in harmony and modulation. Brossard (1703) described the fantasia as a completely free genre, closely related to the capriccio; Mattheson (1739) said that order and restraint, especially as exemplified in strict fugal texture, are inappropriate to the form; Kollman (1796) considered the ideal fantasia to be entirely improvised; in his opinion it lost some of the ‘true fire of imagination’ when it had to be written down, as in a pedagogical work. It must be pointed out, however, that fantasias of this period are far from being ‘formless’, even when they sound most improvisatory. Indeed, just as in the 16th and 17th centuries, many fantasias of the 18th century readily took on the forms and styles of other contemporary genres (dance movement, prelude, capriccio, invention, variation, toccata, sonata movement, etc.).

In the 17th century the rich tradition of the fantasia had begun to decline on the keyboard side in favour of the toccata, capriccio and prelude–fugue pairing (especially in Germany), and on the instrumental ensemble side in favour of the sonata and sinfonia (especially in Italy). By 1700 the number of fantasias written for instrumental ensemble had dwindled to insignificance, but the fantasia for keyboard was to remain important in the 18th century, mainly in Germany. J.S. Bach’s fantasias were intended primarily for the clavichord or harpsichord, C.P.E. Bach’s primarily for the clavichord, and Mozart’s primarily for the piano. These three composers sum up the essential history of the 18th-century fantasia.

J.S. Bach composed 15 known fantasias, not counting the three-part inventions (‘Sinfonie’), which were originally called fantasias. None is systematically fugal but nearly all use contrapuntal imitative procedures. The fantasia of the Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (bwv542) is a north German toccata of the Buxtehude type; that of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (bwv903) combines elements of both toccata and recitative in three clearly delineated sections; that of the Fantasy and Fugue in A minor (bwv904) is like a prelude, built on the ‘continuous expansion’ (to use Bukofzer’s term) of a long theme; the ‘Fantasie über ein Rondo’ systematically and exhaustively elaborates on its 12-bar theme; the Fantasy in C minor (bwv906) looks like a sonata form out of its proper era. Bach’s fantasias are often flamboyant with sweeping scales and arpeggios and a rich scheme of modulation; but strict form and procedure prevail nevertheless.

Characteristically, the fantasias of Beethoven both maintain and break with tradition. The Fantasia of 1809 for piano (op.77) is in a single movement and has contrasts of tempo and figuration that are clearly in the empfindsamer Stil of C.P.E. Bach. On the other hand, in the two sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’ (op.27) the term is associated for the first time with the idea of large-scale unification of multi-movement works. In op.27 no.1 traditional forms are ignored to some extent, and there is some attempt to de-emphasize the boundaries between movements; in op.27 no.2 (the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata) an initial slow movement in sonata form takes the place of a sonata-allegro movement and a slow movement (which would be the normal sequence of movements at the beginning of a sonata), and the indication ‘attacca’ is used for the first time to join two ‘independent’ sonata movements to each other. It was in the Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra op.80 (1808), however, that Beethoven broke most strikingly with tradition by introducing a chorus into a form that had been instrumentally conceived for some 300 years.

For the Romantics the fantasia went beyond the idea of a keyboard piece arising essentially from improvised or improvisatory material though still having a definite formal design. To them the fantasia, like the slow introduction to a sonata-allegro movement, a variation set or a fugue, provided the means for an expansion of forms, both thematically and emotionally. The sonata itself had crystallized into a more or less rigid formal scheme, and the fantasia offered far greater freedom in the use of thematic material and virtuoso writing. As a result the 19th-century fantasia grew in size and scope to become as musically substantial as large-scale, multi-movement works.

The four fantasias of Schubert (the Wandererfantasie and ‘Graz’ Fantasia for piano solo, the Fantasia in F minor for piano duet and the Fantasia in C for violin and piano) were the first to integrate fully the three- or four-movement form of a sonata into a single movement. The Fantasia for violin and piano is of particular importance because it anticipates the cyclical and single-movement aspects of much of the music of Schumann and Liszt; it also provides a historical link with Beethoven’s ‘cyclical’ sonatas of 1815–16 (op.101 and especially op.102 no.1, whose opening Andante–Allegro vivace it strikingly resembles in both key sequence and character of themes), which are true progenitors of the Romantic fantasia. Schumann originally gave the title Symphonische Phantasie to his Symphony no.4, a work whose movements are joined together and clearly interrelated thematically, and Liszt, an early champion of the Wandererfantasie (which he arranged for piano and orchestra), frequently used an integrated single-movement form in his symphonic poems and original piano compositions.

Schumann’s Fantasia in C op.17 (1836–8, originally designated grosse Sonate), on the other hand, is divided into three movements. In both outer movements, however, the initial modulation is to the subdominant, rather than the dominant, thus contradicting an important principle of sonata-movement construction. The work’s “slow-movement section”, in C minor and marked “im Legendenton”, appears in the middle of the first movement, interrupting the first attempt at a recapitulation in the movement; a second attempt is delayed until after the end of this section and requires an initial expansion in E major–C minor to make a smooth connection with it. The middle movement, too, uses the subdominant as its contrasting key centre, though this is entirely in line with its march-like character and its probable model, the second movement of Beethoven’s op.101. The freedom of Schumann’s form also enabled him to use transitional thematic materials in both outer movements that are similar to each other though by no means identical.

To Schumann is also owed the Fantasiestuck and, with such pieces, the creation of an instrumental equivalent of the song cycle, in whose development he also played a prominent role; the individual pieces in works such as the Phantasiestücke (originally called Phantasien) op.12 and Kreisleriana op.16, though coherent musical structures in themselves, are nevertheless better understood in the context of the entire work, and in this respect more so than their early 19th-century antecedents, Beethoven’s sets of bagatelles opp.119 and 126, Schubert’s Moments musicaux and impromptus and Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte. Brahms’s late sets of piano pieces, of which op.116 is entitled Fantasien, take Schumann’s Phantasiestücke as their starting-point, though the cyclical element is not as strong in Brahms’s pieces.

The term ‘fantasia’ was also applied to virtuoso pieces based on a given theme or group of themes of a popular source – usually an opera, although Bruch’s Schottische Fantasie for violin and orchestra uses folk melodies collected on his travels in Britain. Most 19th-century virtuoso pianists wrote operatic fantasias; many who had also composed a successful opera wrote a fantasia on its most popular tunes. The form of the operatic fantasia often resembles that of a theme and variations, with a freer introductory section and an extended finale. Thalberg played an important role in its early development with such works as the fantasias based on themes from Moïse and Les Huguenots; but it is Liszt’s fantasias that are the outstanding examples of the genre: those on Don Giovanni and Simon Boccanegra may be counted among his more important piano compositions. The operatic fantasia declined in popularity in the second half of the century, although the music of Carmen did inspire a number of works, and continued to do so well into the 20th century: Busoni’s Kammerfantasie titled Sonatina super Carmen (1920) is the most noteworthy.

In the early 20th century the fantasia became something of a retrospective form, flourishing particularly in organ music based on chorales, themes by Bach or the motif B–A–C–H. Liszt’s two principal organ works, the Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam and the fantasia-like Prelude and Fugue on B–A–C–H, are the antecedents of this development; the chorale fantasias and free fantasias of Reger and the Bach-inspired fantasias of Busoni (especially the Fantasia contrappuntistica (1910), arranged for two pianos in 1922) are its most important consequences. The outstanding example of the 20th-century fantasia on original themes is Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment op.47 (the piano part was added after the composition of the violin part and is sometimes omitted from performance). It is in one movement, with an opening Grave serving as the introduction and later reappearing between two scherzo-like sections and again before a climactic ending. Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings is also a single-movement work, which derives its rhythmic energy from a march-like figure. Other British composers took up the fantasia on given themes as an orchestral form, including Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Greensleeves and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis) and Tippett (Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli).

Opusalb by Grove Dictionary


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