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Fantasia a5, ’upon one note’

Purcell: Complete Fantasies for Viols In Henry Purcell’s youthful Fantasies, most of which he composed in the year 1680, the composer adds what was to be the final and most brilliant chapter in the history of the English viol fantasy or ‘fantazia’, as Purcell spelled it in his autograph. These amazing works find the 21-year old Purcell composing in a contemplative idiom that many would think better suited to an old man, that is, turning to the most severe forms of imitative and invertible counterpoint as a highly speculative and experimental field for musical exploration. There is, in fact, some evidence from pages which are left intentionally blank in Purcell’s autograph manuscript that he intended to return to these pieces and add further works in this old-fashioned genre, but, as it turned out, he never did so. Purcell makes clear his awareness of past masters of the Fantasy, and it is not difficult to discern an indebtedness to the consorts of Matthew Locke, in particular, as well as to the works of some 16th-century composers in the case of the two In Nomines, based on the chant Gloria tibi trinitas from John Taverner’s Mass by that name. To focus too intently on the retrospective traditions that are present in these great works is, however, also to miss the entirely novel forms of expression which Purcell’s Fantasies manage to evoke. We are confronted here with a musical language - by and large the result of strict contrapuntal thinking - that finds itself in the throes of making fundamental discoveries about tonal harmony. These were discoveries which, in a sense, were to be locked away in a compositional vault for nearly a century and a half until they were excavated anew by the likes of the late Beethoven, Schubert and the German Romantics. Purcell has clearly studied the tricks of the trade from his English predecessors but he goes far beyond them in creating a sense of musical inevitability even whilst pursuing the most remote harmonic regions. Some writers, struck by the historical oddity of a set of viol Fantasias written as late as in 1680, have concluded - in the absence of any known coteries of viol players - that Purcell conceived of these pieces chiefly as compositional exercises, but this view becomes difficult to maintain the more intently one engages with the profound musical quality of these works. Even from the viewpoint of common sense, it is difficult to understand why mere exercises - even those composed in a very specific style - ought to have included performance markings such as ‘Slow’, ‘Brisk’, ‘Quick,’ and ‘Drag’ which are scattered across the score. To whom would these kinds of performance indications be directed? Surely the composer himself would have had no need of them. It is also useful in this regard to compare Purcell’s 1694 examples of counterpoint and canon that he compiled for the twelfth edition of John Playford’s tutor An Introduction to the Skill of Music in 1694. Especially striking is the absence of any inspired music in the Playford snippets: the diatonic tedium and humdrum harmonies quality found in the examples of double descant, augmentation canons and so on - while they help us understand Purcell’s categories of strict counterpoint - simply bear no relation to what Purcell has striven to achieve in the Fantasies, where every arcane device points to a new form of expressivity quite without par in the tradition in which the composer was working. So even if Purcell was not writing the Fantasies with the equivalent of a Kolisch Quartet in mind - to compare his pieces with similarly difficult music by Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók - it is entirely fair to say that he had some ideal ensemble in mind when putting pen to paper. And given the fact that the extended range required of the individual voices makes the upper parts unsuitable for violins or violas, Purcell must have been thinking of a consort of viols to realise his compositional and expressive intentions. Although arcane counterpoint - through which one or more melodic subjects are combined, inverted, and augmented in a variety of strict ways - can seem remote when considered in the abstract, it affords pleasures that are unavailable even to advanced homophonic music dominated by one main theme, not to mention that it also grants access to a strikingly multi-dimensional form of musical hearing. It is true that some devices are so well embedded into the musical substructure that even astute musicians find themselves surprised to discover the kind of algorithmic motor which has been pulling the strings beneath the surface of their individual parts. The six-part In Nomine offers a telling example of this kind of structural secret, since one could play this piece for a lifetime without being aware that each imitative theme is based on successive bits of the austere cantus firmus and therefore projects a consistently diminutive miniature of the supernatural cantus firmus enunciated only subliminally in a nearly inaudible middle voice. On the other hand, Purcell also goes out of his way to craft difficult bits of counterpoint that are more intentionally audible. The opening section of Fantazia 8 provides such an example, in which the composer begins by displaying a tantalising dual focus of a subject heard in a prime form simultaneously with its inverted mirror image, or vice versa, as the case may be. Both thematic images participating in this dazzling dialogue explore, if you will, the dynamics between an ‘ego’ and an ‘alter ego’, that is, two contrasting melodic contours bound together by melodic inversion. The dialogue that ensues also takes on questions of accent and metrical organisation, since neither theme possesses a stable basis of scansion: already in the third bar Purcell encourages both players and listeners - because of the initial falling or rising fourth - to hear the theme as starting on a strong beat and - as an equally plausible alternative - to hear it starting on a weak upbeat as well. Purcell’s harmonic vagaries - which manage to shock and yet to seem entirely inevitable - suggest another fascinating realm to admire in the fantasies. The progressions in the justly famous Fantasia upon one Note - in which one player holds a middle C miraculously nourished by four other parts - go to some lengths to locate permissible combinations without ever revealing that the composer is, as it were, running a race with one foot encased in stone. More typically, though, the striking range of harmonic motion in the fantasies results from the composer’s dogged pursuit of musical implications, whether these emerge from the positioning of a thematic entry on a new scale degree, or from simply following through on a pattern set up by a melodic sequence. Again in Fantazia 8, Purcell devises harmony of nearly unbelievable daring just before the final ‘Slow’ (bars 42-44) merely by keeping the melodic intervals in his sequence intact without succumbing to harmonic alterations. As a consequence - in a piece nominally in D minor - the craggy descent heard in the treble and bass lines hints - in direct succession - at B flat major, G major, E major (all root chords separated by minor thirds and sharing only one note in common) only to land, of all places, on C major as a temporary resting point. This kind of accidental foreshadowing of harmonic processes (to be reinvented in an admittedly different guise) more than a century later is the reason, perhaps, why many post-Romantic listeners will feel themselves dragged through thoroughly anachronistic depths in Purcellian passages such as these: it is not merely a coincidence that these advanced ‘third relations’ resemble highly emotive passages in mainstream Romantic language but that they indeed seem to carry very similar associations. Perhaps these elective affinities are not coincidental at all, but rather result from the metaphorical power of tonal harmony to represent propulsion toward remote regions, together with all the emotional baggage that such an impulse inevitably entails. Whatever the source of Purcell’s own harmonic imagery, it remains for us to imagine how relatively modest contrapuntal works for viol consort composed by a youthful Londoner in the early 1680s manage to scale such heights, a question that is sure to endure in appreciating these magnificent works. © Laurence Dreyfus 1996

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