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The fantasia (from Italian: fantasia; also English: fantasy, fancy, phantasy, German: Fantasie, Phantasie, French: fantaisie) is a musical composition with its roots in the art of improvisation. Because of this, it seldom approximates the textbook rules of any strict musical form (as with the impromptu).
The term was first applied to music during the 16th century, at first to refer to the imaginative musical "idea" rather than to a particular compositional genre. Its earliest use as a title was in German keyboard manuscripts from before 1520, and by 1536 is found in printed tablatures from Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. From the outset, the fantasia had the sense of "the play of imaginative invention", particularly in lute or vihuela composers such as Francesco Canova da Milano and Luis de Milán. Its form and style consequently ranges from the freely improvisatory to the strictly contrapuntal, and also encompasses more or less standard sectional forms (Field 2001).
During the Renaissance
The term also referred in the late Renaissance era (specifically in English Tudor music) to pieces for viols, characteristically—though not always—alternating, in this case rapid fugal sections with slower sections in slow notes and sometimes clashing harmonies. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, in the 16th century the instrumental fantasia was a strict imitation of the vocal motet (Kennedy 2006). Henry Purcell's fantasias are the last Baroque representatives of the breed, although Walter Willson Cobbett, in the opening decades of the 20th century, attempted to resurrect something of this style via a competition, to which works like the Phantasie trios and quartets by William Hurlstone, Armstrong Gibbs, John Ireland, Herbert Howells and Frank Bridge owe their existence (Howes and Bashford, 2001), as does Benjamin Britten's Phantasy in F minor for string quintet written in 1932, the same year in which he also composed a Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings (Brett et al. 2001, §2).
In the Baroque, Classical, and later eras
In the Baroque and Classical music eras, a fantasia was typically a piece for keyboard instruments with alternating sections of rapid passagework and slower, more melodic passages. From the Baroque period, J. S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903, for harpsichord; Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, for organ; and Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, for organ are examples. Examples from the Classical period are Mozart's Fantasia in D minor, K. 397 for fortepiano and his Fantasia in C minor, K. 475. Franz Schubert composed the Fantasie in C major nicknamed the Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano and the Fantasia in F minor for piano four hands. Later examples of fantasias include Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and Corigliano's Fantasia on an ostinato.
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- Brett, Philip, Jennifer Doctor, Judith LeGrove, and Paul Banks. 2001. "Britten, (Edward) Benjamin". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Field, Christopher D. S. 2001. "Fantasia." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Howes, Frank, and Christina Bashford. 2001. "Cobbett, Walter Willson". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Kennedy, Michael. 2006. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revise, Joyce Bourne, associate editor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Antcliffe, Herbert. 1920. "The Recent Rise of Chamber Music in England". Musical Quarterly 6, no. 1 (January): 12–23.
- Meyer, Ernst Hermann. 1946. English Chamber Music. London: Lawrence & Wishart. Reprinted, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971. ISBN 0-306-70037-9. Reference on the early English fantasy (fantazy, fantasie, fantasia.).