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Saturday morning quotes 4.46: Fantasia

March 28, 2015

We often lose ourselves in imponderables such as: Did the people in ancient times realize that they were counting the years backwards up until the birth of Christ?  Or do people today realize that money is merely paper that governments just print and allow to be distributed when and to whom they please?  Or more likely today money is imaginary digits that occasionally pop up on screen displays, with more zeros added after the digits on screens of those who are more driven and less empathetic.

Today, we wonder what is a “Fantasia”?  In more modern terms, we know it is the title of a once slightly popular animated film.  But in the realm of historical music, the definition is typically derived from the words of Thomas Morley:

The most principal and chiefest kind of music…is the Fancy [fantasia], that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it…In this may more art be shewn than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure. And this kind may bear any allowances whatsoever tolerable in other music except changing the air and leaving the key, which in Fancy may never be suffered. Other things you may use at your pleasure, as bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you list. Likewise this kind of music is, with them who practise instruments of parts, in greatest use. . .

– Thomas Morley A Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music, 1597

It turns out that in earlier times, the term described something more akin to a psychological condition. In Physionomia (1442),  a treatise on human physiognomy, written by Michele Savonarola, court physician of Marquis Leonello d’Este, and grandfather of the infamous Girolamo Savonarola, the term pops us in this quote:

“For those who excel in some art appear to have a quality of melancholy, in that such persons are said by ordinary people to lack prudence to some degree. For like melancholics they are fixed in their opinions; they are neither softened by entreaties to exercising the activities of their art, as we frequently see happen with singers and those experienced on lutes [or other plucked string instruments], nor do they carry such activities to a conclusion unless moved by their own fantasia. And ordinary people call such persons bizari, and say that no one can be an excellent artist unless he suffers to some extent from bizaria; from this flaw of bizaria the excellent physician must be altogether free. “

– Michele Savonarola, as quoted in Rob C. Wegman, “And Josquin Laughed…” Josquin and the Composer’s Anecdote in the Sixteenth Century,” The Journal of Musicology,Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), pp. 319-357

From the same article by Wegman, he describes the term Fantasia as:

“…one of the “inner senses” identified in medieval psychology–others being common sense, imagination, instinct, and memory. Like the latter, fantasia was thought to have a discrete location in the brain, in one of the so-called chambers or ventricles. By this faculty, humans were able to create new images and ideas from forms stored in the memory or in the imagination. In addition, fantasia denoted any thought or image produced by this faculty, including artistic ideas or designs, but also dreams, delusions, and hallucinations…The word fantasia as a conventional designation for a musical genre (usually keyboard or lute pieces in improvisatory style) is not attested before the beginning of the sixteenth century.”

– Wegman, p. 347

Wegman goes on to describe what was probably one of Josquin’s earliest compositions, a three-part instrumental piece called “Ile fantazies de Joskin,” dedicated to Isabella d’Este and presumably dating from the 1480’s.  Wegman describes the piece as “the first known composition in history to be identified in terms of the concept of fantasia.”

Lewis Lockwood, in Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400-1505 (Oxford University Press, 1984; revised reprint Oxford University Press, 2008), speculates that the piece may not have been composed by Josquin, but rather a “non-canonic” string of points that may have been drawn from other compositions by Josquin. But the scant number of points in the compact piece appear in strict imitation.

For our readers in the lute world, we offer an intabulation of the piece.  Due to technical problems, we can’t post it here but you can contact us through our contact form at the header of this blog, and we will send a pdf copy.

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