The Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines fantasia as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction, but the direct product of the composer’s impulse.” The term itself is somewhat loose, its definition changing over the course of music history.
Elizabethan fantasias for keyboard were built from whatever musical idea took the “fancy” of the performer, who made as much or as little of it as he wanted. It was a good way to warm up while checking the tuning of the instrument at the start of a performance.
Here is William Byrd’s Fantasy in A from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played on a spinet harpsichord built in London in 1718.
One of the best examples of the Baroque fantasia is JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I have chosen a version by the great pioneer of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska, who manages to extract a huge variety of colours from her hybrid Pleyel instrument. The performance (recorded in 1935) is magnificent – almost gothic, and very much of its time.
In the early Classical period, the fantasia evolved into two types, the prelude and the episodic. The composers who belonged to the keyboard school of JS Bach’s second son, CPE Bach, continued the Baroque improvisatory tradition and wrote bold, imaginative prelude-type fantasias. Think of an improvised prelude, where the composer-performer presented their ideas and demonstrated their knowledge and inspiration moment by moment to a small group of connoisseurs – literally making it up as they went along. When writing this out in conventional notation, frequent changes of tempo and meter are needed (you’ll see what I mean from the scrolling score in the following clip).
Here is Robert Hill playing CPE Bach’s rather splendid Fantasia in F# minor (1787), played on a modern copy of a Cristofori piano from c. 1720.
At the same time, Classical composers led by Mozart developed a new episodic-type fantasia, alternating sections that sound improvisatory with music that is much more tightly structured and organised. In addition to the famous Fantasia in C minor, K 475, that goes with the Sonata in the same key (K 457), Mozart wrote another astonishing Fantasia in C minor, K 396, much less played. Do explore it, it’s wonderful!
The Fantasia in D minor, K 397, is among Mozart’s most beloved works for piano. I am very happy to announce that I have just published a video walkthrough of this piece in my Intermediate Repertoire series on the Online Academy, and would like to offer this short video extract here – illustrating the challenges of the Adagio section and how to solve them in practice and performance.
It may surprise you to learn that Mozart did not complete K 397, his manuscript stopping on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, and that it was finished for publication by August Eberhard Müller. Because the closing bars are not actually by Mozart himself, Mitsuko Uchida feels justified in composing her own ending.
What happened to the fantasia after Mozart? Beethoven’s two Sonatas, op. 27 (including the Moonlight) are both subtitled “quasi una fantasia”, and we find classical form mixed up with more free-spirited elements. And then came Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, a work that combines sonata form, variation and fugue in a free-form structure that so inspired the Romantic composers.