'So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical'
(Duke Orsino Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1)

The pleasures of listening to instrumental music were described in 1555 by an Italian gentleman writing in French, who had the good fortune to hear one of the greatest players in Europe:'He placed himself at one end of the table and began a fantasia ... he continued with such ravishing work that gradually, with his own divine way of playing he transported all the listeners with a melancholia so graceful that, while one person leant his head on his hand, supported by his elbow, another had his limbs sprawled carelessly, his mouth open and his eyes more than half closed another's chin was sunk onto his chest, his face disguised with the saddest silence that ever was seen. Each listener became deprived of all feeling, except for his hearing, as if his soul had been withdrawn to the edge of the ears, more easily to enjoy such ravishing harmony ... We would all have remained like that, had he not with gentle strength, restored our souls and feelings to the state from which he had removed them; but not without leaving us much astonished, as if we had been transported in ecstasy by some divine fury.'

The player was the lutenist Francesco da Milano,il Divino,whose distinguished place in the history of music is partly due to his having developed a convincing musical discourse that was purely instrumental. Several of Francesco's fantasias survive in English sources. It is certainly not by chance that the extraordinary work he played was a fantasia; it no doubt contained many of the 'pleasaunt reports, repetitions, and running poyntes' referred to in Peacham's The Garden of Eloquence, mentioned above. 'Fantasy'--known also in English simply as 'fancy'-- was a key word in the development of non-verbal music.

Various titles such as fancie, fantasia, voluntarie, lessonandverseare used by composers such as William Byrd to describe their keyboard or lute fancies. English fantasias are generally different from Continental monothematic fantasias of the period, which are written in a stricter form that prefigures the fugue. While earlier continental fantasies were not always monothematic, they did maintain a consistency of style and tone. On the other hand, the later sixteenth-century English fancy is also made up of a series of different 'points' that evolve structurally at an unhurried pace, with one idea slowly giving way in the fullness of time to another, but with the style of the piece changing radically as the ideas get progressively more lively. In Byrd's works, for instance, learned imitative counterpoint is indeed normally heard at the start, but he breaks out fairly soon into triplet dance rhythms, and not infrequently incorporates quotations from popular Elizabethan tunes near the end. The serious writing heard at the start is quite abandoned by the midway point.

Thomas Morley's famous definition of the style cannot be bettered: 'The most principal and chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie is the fantasie, that is, when a musician taketh a point [of imitation] at his pleasure, and wresteth and tumeth it as he list,[i.e. chooses]making either much or little of it according as shall seeme best in his own conceit. In this may more art be showne than in any other musicke, because the composer is tied to nothing but that he may adde, diminish, and alter at his pleasure'(PEIPM, p 181). Since Morley explains in the book's dedication to his teacher that the contents 'somtime proceeded from your selfe', we can safely see here an eloquent description of Byrd's own fancies.

Twenty years later, Michael Praetorius borrowed from Morley for his own explanation of it (Syntagma musicum, 1619). Christopher Simpson's description, although published eighty years after Morley, is still derived from it: 'the chief and most excellent, for Art and Contrivance, are Fancies... In this sort of Music the Composer (not being confined to words) employs all his Art and Invention solely about the bringing in and carrying on of Fuges... When he has tried all the ways that he thinks fit to be used, he take another Point and does the like with it; or else for variety introduces some Chromatic Notes, with Bindings and Intermixtures of Discords; or falls into some light Humour like a Madrigal, or what else his fancy shall lead him, but still concluding with something which hath Art and Excellency in it. Of this sort there are many compositions formerly made in England This kind of Music (the more is the pity) is now much neglected, by reason of the scarcity of Auditors that understand it (or Composers that write it) their Ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light Music' (A Compendium, or Introduction to Practicall Music, 1677, pp 73/4).

Byrd'sLesson of voluntarie (BK26) is a fine example from his middle period. It is based on no less than fourteen different points, or themes, developed one after the other. The opening is serious, aimed at the more learned listeners (and with a canon thrown in for good measure), but soon starts playing to the gallery by involving not only dance elements but also the recognisable popular Elizabethan tune Sicke, sicke and very sicke, a joke that would not have been lost on listeners of the day. In Byrd's fancies, generous imagination and structural freedom reign throughout, and the fingers are freed more than in any other kind of music. Morley's reference to a player 'with a quicke hand playing upon an instrument, shewing in voluntarie the agilitie of his fingers' (PEIPM, p.150) refers specifically to this kind of music.

Morley also notes that 'divers men [are] diversly attracted to divers kindes of musicke,' explaining that 'as there be divers kinds of musicke, so will some mens burnouts be more enclined to one kind than to another' (PEIPM, p 181). Some twenty years later, Henry Peacham the younger noted this in connection with Byrd, at the very end of the composer's long life: 'being of himself naturally disposed to gravity and piety his vein is not so much for light madrigals or canzonets' (The Compleat Gentleman, 1622).

Peacham stresses that the specific compositional figures used by musicians are identical to the rhetorical ones used by poets. Elisabethan poetry had a consciously high or noble style and an equally self-evident plain style. These can be exemplified (if over-simplified) by comparing the two kinds of discourse that Shakespeare gives to Prince Hal in Henry IV. In the opening scene when he is in the tavern with Falstaff and his drinking companions, he puts on a verbal cloak by adopting prose speech with ordinary vocabulary; however, the minute he is alone he talks as a prince, adopting the highest form of poetry, in supple but regular ten syllable lines, often rhymed, and using a rich vocabulary. This is not all, for in his prose speeches the ideas are less developed, and indeed are not designed for much developing, whereas in his role as poetical prince the ideas are full of gravitas, announced, developed, expanded and brought to fulfilment.

 To the theorists such as George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie,1593), this high style used the traditional rhetorical techniques which aimed to delight the ear, that is, the arts of 'variation', 'amplification' and 'beautification'. The accepted characteristics of the high style were gravity, dignity, sonorousness and vehemence.

Prince Hal starts in the tavern and ends up with the most severe of princely discourses. Byrd's fantasies are rather similar but make the reverse journey. They start in grave, noble counterpoint, in which the ideas are announced, developed and expanded, becoming material ('matter') for large supple paragraphs of sound; but they often end up closer to Falstaff's taverns, mixing dance tunes with quotations from amusing popular songs.

Return to: IVM: England through 1635