What is a... Fantasia?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Fantasia?
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There’s a thesis waiting to be written about the use of classical music terms in contemporary retailing. Today, for instance, ‘Fantasie’ is a popular make of bra.

But while that invaluable piece of equipment suggests containment, support, structure, the musical term ‘fantasie’ – or, more commonly, ‘fantasia’ – has consistently signified freedom, absence of structure.

Sixteenth-century lutenists were the first to use ‘fantasia’ widely, indicating pieces of varying length which, rather than being transcriptions of songs, were conceived specially for the instrument. These were both ‘fantasies’ in the modern sense (improvisatory in character rather than following set forms) and ‘fantastic’ in the word’s older meaning (full of extravagant display).

As the status of purely instrumental music rose in the Baroque era, and appropriate musical structures began to define themselves (dance suite, fugue, passacaglia etc), the fantasia retained its importance as a kind of imaginative counterbalance.

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia revels in wild, capricious indiscipline,  but the effect is to make the orderliness of the D minor fugue that follows all the more satisfying. Creativity is released explosively, then grounded, brought exquisitely into line.

Later masters of musical form such as Mozart and Beethoven similarly allowed themselves intellectual ‘holidays’ in their fantasias. Mozart’s piano Fantasie, K475, is clearly intended as a free-ranging counterpart to the impassioned but beautifully balanced Sonata in C minor, K457.

But Beethoven’s two Op. 27 Sonatas (including the famous ‘Moonlight’), both designated ‘quasi una fantasia’, combine elements of classical form with something closer to free-association logic, in ways that were to have lasting consequences in his later output.

It was Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, however, that opened up new vistas for the Romantics: an extended ‘fantasy’ on a song that could be in four movements or in one, invoking sonata form, variation, fugue while soaring free of textbook disciplines.

Schumann’s magnificent Fantasie in C and Liszt’s one-movement Sonata in B minor explore similar flight paths.

As does Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, its starting point a hymn rather than a Lied, which by looking back to the 16th century also brings the form full circle. Since then the term has dropped out of use: a sign that we are all ‘fantasists’ now – or the reverse?

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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