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The 'ffantazia manner.' (conference on fantasias)

Between 7 and 9 July 1995 members of the Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain gathered at York University (alongside a colourful array of bishops at synod) for a conference on 'The fantasia in England from Alfonso Ferrabosco II to Henry Purcell'. This event - deftly organized by Lynn Hulse and Caroline Wood - was the society's tribute to the last composer of fantazias, marking the tercentenary of his death. It attracted delegates from the Lute Society and the Viola da Gamba Society of America.

Bruce Bellingham and Christopher Field opened the proceedings at the beginning of the 17th century with papers on Ferrabosco II. Bellingham focused on forms of artistic emulation apparent in Ferrabosco's work, and brought his points splendidly to life by playing his own illustrations with assistance from the Rose Consort. Field proposed that the fantazia as a form invites revision - vide Byrd, Dowland, Lawes and Locke - and shared with us his discoveries concerning Ferrabosco's refinements, elaborations and rearrangements. Caroline Cunningham analysed Coprario's fantazias from the standpoint of the composer's Rules how to compose, a manuscript written around 1612 for the Earl of Bridgewater. Using his three examples of 'Maintaininge a fuge' she demonstrated his preference for overlapping entrances of canzona-like themes ('the sooner you bring in your parts the better it will show') as against longer subjects and double fugues. Jonathan Wainwright disentangled the important Christ Church manuscripts: 'The Hatton Set', 'The Bing set' and 'The Great Set' - identifying interrelationships of the two scribes, Bing and Lilly, with their flamboyant patron, Christopher Hatton. Wainwright suggested that the manuscripts were copied in the above order in the mid-to late 1630s and that they might represent one of the last great musical enterprises of the Royalist court in London.

Michael Fleming drew attention to the unfortunate English preoccupation with wealth and status in 17th-century portraiture with the result that, in contrast to the Continental taste for allegory (which commonly includes instruments), iconographical evidence on English viols is meagre. Peter Holman, in a paper entitled 'Organ accompaniment in English consort music', overturned current assumptions by arguing most persuasively that in consort music the presumption should be that the organ is present and that its absence is the exception. Major keyboard players (such as Orlando and Christopher Gibbons, Tomkins and Locke) improvised from a score; only the viol players (Coprario, Lawes and Jenkins) needed to write out a keyboard part. Dominic Gwynn pleaded with violists to take more care to choose an appropriate type of organ, one whose presence when it supports a consort of five viols is almost imperceptible. The English early 17th-century organ was characterized by wooden pipes with a narrow mouth and small toe-hole, which produced a gentle, blending sound; indeed, taste before the Civil War was for an open diapason which has a similar harmonic mix to the viol. Robert Thompson, introduced as 'a scholar with a Sherlock Holmes eye', represented Purcell, throwing much fresh light on the fantazia manuscripts, not least the autograph. Perhaps the pavan for three violins and continuo (another obsolete form) was written in homage to Jenkins (d 1677); judging by the discolouration of the paper it is possible that the three trio sonatas antedate the fantazias, and maybe the fantazias themselves were composed before 1680.

Tying up the proceedings, Bruce Bellingham challenged us to consider the rhetorical implications of the 'ffantazia manner' in greater depth, recommending the study of Quintilian, whose Institutio oratoria appeared in 47 editions between 1470 and 1600. Cross-references to Purcell's fantazias and particularly the vexed question as to whether they were merely brilliant academic exercises surfaced at regular intervals during the weekend; happily the general consensus was that the presence of enthusiastic circles of viol players in the late 1670s (notably in Oxford) - and, indeed, a surviving set of parts - suggests they were played during Purcell's lifetime, perhaps even by the composer himself.

Conference papers will be published in full in the 1996 issue of the Viola da Gamba Society's journal, Chelys. Technical details of Robert Thompson's analysis of British Library, Add. Ms. 30930 are available in 'Purcell's great autographs' in Purcell studies.
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Author:Robinson, Lucy
Publication:Early Music
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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