Every now and then on my show, I like to explore some of the genres and ideas we take for granted in classical music. I’ve covered subjects from rhapsodies to minimalism before, but on Classical Tulsa this week (Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 at noon on KWTU 88.7 FM), I’m taking a look at one of the most evocative of all musical forms: the fantasy.
You might know it better as the fantasia, but whatever the language, a fantasy is a piece of music with no set form or expectations. It’s completely free, like the idle daydreams it’s named after – but it turns out that freedom has meant different things at different times.
For English baroque composer Henry Purcell, a “fantazia” (his spelling) was a kind of madrigal without words, with stringed instruments playing the four or five vocal lines that weave in and out in intricate counterpoint. The effect is dreamlike to say the least.
Fast forward a hundred years and a fantasy had become a piano piece that seemed like it was being improvised on the spot. As you might expect, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart excelled at this kind of music – and his fantasias were so free that he sometimes forgot to write down the last few measures!
By the time we get to Franz Schubert, less than half a century later, the term had taken on another meaning: in his best-known fantasy, Schubert took a simple melody from one of his own songs (“Der Wanderer”) and expanded it into an epic reimagining, even more intricate than a theme and variations. A century after that, American composer Florence Price did much the same with the unique sounds of African American blues and spirituals, creating a series of what she called Fantasies Nègre.
We’ve left the orchestra out of this, and for good reason: it’s not easy for a few dozen musicians to be spontaneous all at once. But Alan Hovhaness made it work; his Celestial Fantasy has the orchestra creating an ethereal atmosphere that was entirely appropriate for its otherworldly dedicatee, the 12th-century Armenian saint Nerses the Gracious.
Join me and Classical Tulsa for these fantasies and more, this Friday, January 29th, at noon on KWTU 88.7 FM. And watch for my future episodes on symphonies in miniature and music about rivers, plus a special celebration of Black History Month.