Posted in Research for Assignment 4

Assignment 4 Research: The Dualities of Fantasia

Along with the fact that my fourth assignment piece is based on an excerpt from the Little Mermaid with fantastical elements of the fairy tale sea world, I have added the fantasy to its title because of the free form I utilized. However I realized that beside the free nature, I knew nothing about the term fantasia in general. As such, I wanted to write a research where I explore its history and use in music.

Today, fantasia is used in a generic sense, denoting a genre of compositions which is free and departs from the standard musical conventions and norms of form, style, etc – a meaning which I used for my assignment composition. However, as the term originally signified imagination or product of the imagination in the Middle Ages, its earliest musical appearances denoted a imaginative musical idea or theme – something that is newly composed, rather than being based on pre-composed cantus firmus, which was the usual basis for polyphonic pieces. In this regard, near the end of 15th century, one of the first to use the word is Josquin De Prez, who named his textless polyphonic composition ‘Ile fantazies de Joskin’, because he based it on his own freely invented motivic material, rather than borrowing the melody of cantus firmus. (Field, 2001) Another example is the composer Heinrich Isaac, who was said to have written ‘a motet based on a fantasia called la mi la so la si la mi la’ (Field, 2001), the fantasia being a newly-invented subject of solmization syllables. (Randel, 2003: 307S) As such, the term fantasia in this sense describes a novel thematic content of music, treated in the old polyphonic conventions and techniques of the time.

Contrasting this, in the 16th century, another kind of fantasia appeared, called the parody fantasia. In these fantasias, the composer would use his own imagination and subjectivity to create a new composition by using an existing one. It is this meaning that Sebastiani indicated in his treatise, saying that a fantasia can be created from an existing song or motet, when writing a new composition such as Mass. (Strahle, 1987: 10) In this sense, the fantasia is not related to the novel content, but rather to the new, inventive compositional model and process of development of the borrowed content. This development goes much further for the lute, vihuela, and keyboard improvisators, for whom the existing musical idea for a new composition doesn’t only stop at the liturgical and dance melodies, harmonic progressions, or vocal polyphonic compositions, such as Severino’s parody fantasia on Lasso’s Susanne un jour (Griffiths and Fabris, 2004: xvi), but could even go as far as to be the extraction of the essential stylistic spirit of the original. (Strahle, 1987: 9) As such, Luis de Milan, for example, composed his fantasia no. 21 in which he copied the spirit of the pavan, using its style as a starting musical idea to improvise on. In this way, the word fantasia became increasingly aligned with improvisation – fantasia as quasi-improvisational form that is connected to the stylus phantasticus, and its genres such as ricercar, tiento, intonatio, preambulum, preludio, tastar, toccata and other. (I write briefly about the stylus phantasticus in my Project 2 Example 1 Research post)

Interestingly, the meaning of fantasia as newly-invented musical content continued with some theorists. In their treatises on composition, fantasia is mentioned in connection to the thematic subject of the ‘free counterpoint’. For example, Zarlino, and similarly Zacconi and Galilei, differentiates the ‘tutto composto di fantasia’ as those compositions that use newly-composed material for subjects from those that use pre-existing subjects, but these are still developed under the strict musical conventions of the time. (Strahle, 1987: 14) Even if we leave this terminological confusion of the dual context of fantasia – where it denoted both the new musical content developed with old compositional techniques, and the new compositional development of the old, borrowed material – as Kirkendale (1979: 2) pointed out, the quality of duality will also be noticeable in the style of the fantasias.

One is polyphonic and relies on the strict point-of-imitation technique, with overlapping sections organized around separate, but sometimes related soggetti (thematic subjects); the other includes the different types of compositions of the stylus phantasticus that were previously mentioned, all of which have preludial function, with free and improvisatory nature that calls for loose performance.

But it also has be taken into consideration that fantasia at the time, while signifying all these disparate dual meanings, is actually an umbrella term that unites them all. This is why Zarlino utilized the word fantasia not only for the subject of the composition, which is ‘a creation of the composer himself, a product of his ingenuity’ (Strahle, 1987: 14), but also for the free method of composing itself, counterpoint as a whole – the broad sense of development of any unspecified imitative composition. This can be also seen in practice in Frescobaldi’s fantasias, where the term could denote both his use of the new subject of solmization syllables, and the novel polyphonic techniques he used to develop them. In this way, it may be best to return to the original meaning of fantasia as imagination or product of the imagination, fantasia as “a loose designation for any form of arbitrary inventive creation.” (15) It is along these lines that Pontus de Tyard writes how the performer could ‘seek out the fantasia’ upon their instrument – seeking the imagination, whether it stems from the novel thematic material, or the new development of the borrowed material; an improvisatory and spontaneous style of stylus phantasticus, or the strict point-of-imitation counterpoint. Thus, the true duality of fantasia may actually lie in the learnedness of the borrowed material (cantus firmus, polyphonic pieces, dance melodies and stylistic ideas) or technique (strict point-of-imitation); and the spontaneity of the new material (the novel subject and theme) or technique (free improvisation).

Combining these ideas of learnedness and spontaneity, towards 18th century, the fantasia survived as the pseudo-improvisational form for the keyboard instruments to which the Weelinck tradition brought “elements of concerto, solo and trio sonata, and French overture.” North German composers also united the learnedness and the spontaneity, so that the improvisational freedom is owed to the vocal recitative and the lute and harpsichord tombeau. Bach’s fantasias are perhaps the best example as they range between those like Fantasia in G minor BWV 917 and G major BWV 572 on one side, where although the stylus phantasticus passages open the pieces, the learned polyphony, in fashion similar to the polyphony in Frescobaldi’s fantasias, is the main focus; and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue on the other, where improvisational nature is emphasized. (Take a look at the videos below to hear the difference.) Following the fantasias of the latter type, Bach’s students went further, abandoning barlines and regular meter.

Although the substance of the learned polyphonic fantasia was carried over in the fugue (Randel, 200: 307), it ultimately died down with the rise of homophony as the dominant musical texture in the Western music. On contrary, the elements of pseudo-improvisational fantasia were retained in Classicism, for example Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, Schubert’s Fantasia in C minor and Phantasie Op. 77 by Beethoven. In Romantism, the notion of fantasia became more generalized, and together with capriccios and rhapsodies, it was used to evoke exotic and imaginary landscapes, situations, in a spontaneous and free manner, exemplified by the virtuosic writing. Perhaps the most interesting in this sense is the genre of phantasiestucke – series of short programmatic fantasias with varying moods. (Randel, 2003: 308) The examples include Shumann’s Phantasiestucke Op 12, Brahms’s 7 Fantasies Op. 116, Charles Griffes’s Fantasy Pieces, etc.

Despite the fact that polyphony wasn’t the dominant texture, the learnedness was still present, as the composers explored the popular songs, pseudo-folk melodies, patriotic airs, as well as quoting themes from operas. Examples include Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61 by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fantasia on Two Russian Themes and Listz’s Paraphrases de concert. The learnedness was also manifested through the fuse of the fantasia and sonata in the genre called sonata quasi fantasia. In these pieces, the sonata deviates from the conventional norms set by Classicism, with rearrangement of the sections and movements, and the modifications of tonal and thematic plans. This is another instance where the spontaneity (improvisation in form) and the learnedness (exploration of the familiar genre) meet.

The impressionists continued the tradition of the Romantic fantasia, especially the exotic qualities in their concerto fantasias, while in the 20th century, there are still examples of the learnedness, where some composers explore thematic abstractions, such as B-A-C-H in Busoni’s Fantasia contrapuntistica. (Drabkin, 2001)

To conclude, while the history of the word fantasia may be quite muddled by its dualistic implications, but what is more important is its original and essential meaning of imagination. Depending on the certain period, this musical imagination was explored by the composers through various means that oscillated between learnedness and spontaneity. Understood in this sense, I realized that my own fantasia piece shows some characteristics of both sides – it freely paints the exotic landscape that Andersen’s fairytale provided by using the improvisational approach of Romantism, and yet it also explores the conventional technique of polyphonic imitation, which signifies the tradition of learnedness. With this new awareness of the genre, I hope to compose more fantasias of differing nature in the future. Lastly, you can take a look at my assignment piece here.


Drabkin, W. (2001) ‘Fantasia’. In Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 3rd Sept 2017)

Field, C. D. S. (2001) ‘Fantasia’ In: Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 3rd Sept 2017)

Kirkendale, W. (1979) ‘Ciceronians versus Aristotelians on the Ricercar as Exordium, from Bembo to Bach’ In: Journal of the American Musicological Society. 32 (1) pp. 1-44

Randel, D. M. (ed.) (2003) The Harvard Dictionary of Music. (4th ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Strahle, G. (1987) Fantasy and Music in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century England. [PhD] University of Adelaide At: (Accessed on 31th Aug 2017)

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