Analysis of Henry Purcell's Fantasia I


Purcell’s Fantasias: no. 1 in D min

“The Hill”

Form: 5 Sections—A (17), B (10), C (12), D (9), E(14)


Overview: Fantasia I has bold themes. Each one seems to carry it’s own energy within itself, and we find Purcell able simultaneously to control that energy as well as maintain technical control. Hear the resourcefulness with which Purcell derives all of his material until E. Every phrase either has a precedent or becomes one. While Purcell’s compositional methods are close to those of the renaissance— overlapping canons which morph into new material— his rigorous use of the same core material is more conservative than was typical of his immediate forebears.

A, B, and C are taken up with different paces of descent. A’s austere, modal, cascading scales and B’s hemiolas are a juxtaposition between the regularity of downbeats and the irregularity of off- beats; the forceful, even descent of A’s idea contrasts impishly with B’s canonic hijinks, which move erratically downward like a feather riding on a breeze. A and B display virtuosity in their clarity, their technical elegance, and in the variety of effects Purcell derives from them. The close mesh of canons he sets up in B, for instance, requires an ear all the way to the end of the idea before writing it. The control of pulse and entry points—for instance the regularity of A and the offbeat based B—are signs of technical mastery. The harmonic schema is delicately shaded but underpinned by secure tonal functions. For instance, A goes from: i—V—V7/V— V7/iv—iv/iv—iv—V—V—i. B is a similar progression to a IV-V-I in F, the relative major. While Purcell’s technique is indisputably that of English polyphony, he combines that technique with a unmistakeable awareness of harmony.

C’s slinking pattern contorts itself into ever more dissonant intervals, in a seeming homage to Matthew Locke’s prickly sound world. D is a fugal idea, a sort of inverse of A where the leap occurs before the descent.

From this maelstrom of up and down comes a comet of new material at b. 48-49 . It is the first idea in the piece that lifts upward. It’s rarity is magnified by it’s brevity and the place in which it occurs—around the so-called Golden ratio. It says, “what follows will not be what has come before”. Our passing comet at b. 48-49 alters the gravity of the material that follows. It lifts us afloat, into a dance-like idea (b.50-52) scraped off the boilerplate of stock instrumental patterns, and with little to justify it’s existence except the relation it bears to the directional drama of the previous ideas. In the context of the piece, it is a fencing match. Which direction will win? Out of this whimsicality comes a dotted eighth rhythm (the first in the piece) at b.53, which serves as a springboard into the ending chorale; a sequence of overlapping voices on a cadential pattern . Both falls and leaps climb over one another in repeated cadential motions to get to the finish line, every stepwise descent counteracted by a leap in one of the voices and vice versa, renewing the falling motion like a bouncing ball slowly coming to rest.


The internal drama of A is the juxtaposition between the bold descent of the scale and a leap. The soprano comes in on b. 2 with a canon at the 5th, the bass in b. 3 with canon at the 4th (down). His first resource to juxtapose with the theme he brings out in the tenor at b. 5 (a 1-2-3 motion), and the echo follows in the bass at b. 7. The spacing of the canon is preserved. His second resource is a condensed version of the theme at b. 8-9. This is a pattern in 3rd’s and 6th’s for two voices, one that creates independence by staggering the leap. The third resource is the eventual material of C, found in the tenor at b.10, set against the downward scale. The air of this section is austere and grave. The modality is that of the late English renaissance, but the strong downbeat-centered pulse wouldn’t be found in Byrd or Tomkins.

Purcell liked dramatic shapes, such as prolonged movement up or down; think of, for instance, Dido’s Lament, the ending of How Blest is the Isle, Rejoice in the Lord Alway, Now that the Sun hath Veiled his Light, Let Mine Eyes Run down with tears, for downward movement; and In the Midst of Life or Hear my Prayer for upward movement. In all these pieces, I feel there are two feelings that Purcell creates with downward movement: one is despair or futility (Dido’s Lament), and the other is a feeling of safety and calm. Prolonged upward movement is in the mentioned pieces used as a way to slowly build intensity and bring the emotional waters to a boil; In both In the midst of Life, and Hear my Prayer , the upward movement leads us into a kind of ecstasy. This is not an objective judgement, but a subjective one.

B is a 3 part canon, which Purcell, from b.18-22, maintains exactly. This phrase, centered around the off-beat, has many near-equivalents in Gibbons, Tomkins, or Lawes; it is one of the characteristic rhythmic gestures of English polyphony. It comes from a pattern in descending major and minor thirds, although how the thirds are achieved varies. For instance, we may see this (D-F-E-C-Eb-D-Bb-Db-C-Ab etc), or this (F-E-C-D-Eb-D-Bb-C-Db-C-Ab-Bb etc). Purcell comes up with a mercurial theme out of this, comprised entirely of minor 3rds but simultaneously eluding categorization—is it in Amin, Emin, Dmin? The harmonic descent is achieved by flatting a rising third to bring us down a mode (ex). The spacing is condensed as the cadence draws near. The material here is modal; there is nothing outside the F major scale until the infringement of the Eb at b.24, which directs us to Bb which directs us to C, the dominant. B’s technical execution—like A’s— emphasizes the theme’s internal harmonic and rhythmic implications.

C is a gradual deconstruction of the phrase found in the soprano at b.10. The interval dropped at the end of the theme changes from a 4th, to a 3rd, to a tritone, to a 5th in an exploratory way. The prickly sound is very Locke-esque, but the slyness of say, b. 35, has something a little tongue-in-cheek (to me), a feeling not clearly expressed by Locke. Like B, this idea is has a sense of playfulness engrained in it’s construction: the variable interval at the end of the phrase creates a sense of elusiveness.

D’s theme is closely related to A’s. Like A, it is a downward scale combined with a leap. The main difference is that the leaping interval precedes the scale, not succeeds it. The brisk metrical theme enters suddenly in the soprano; it’s bracingly prim after the lurching C section. Gone, too, is the chromaticism of C, replaced by the near- modality of A and B. Purcell specifies “quick”, and the feeling of speed increases as the distance from points of imitation lessens. The three voices echo each other in near exact imitation, for instance at b.43-45—they overlap themselves each beat, combining the internally rigid theme into a volatile grid.

It is a good example of “framing” material: the sudden entrance of the soprano with it’s prim intensity is the opposite of the lugubrious preceding material, and this entrance immediately highlights the qualities of both sections. Juxtapositions are essential to making the diverse ideas of a fantasia work together. If the juxtapositions aren’t effective, each section will lose salience and relevance. Purcell’s ability to detect the most satisfying path to take at any given musical crossroads could justly be called legendary. Isn’t it logical that the form in which finely judged juxtapositions play a definitive role—the Fantasia—should have honed this ability?

This type of prolonged imitative polyphony was simply beyond Purcell’s contemporaries, and it is worth pausing a moment to consider that fact. Blow, Humphrey, and Locke could never equal Purcell’s command of stile antico—their best efforts, while often fine on their own (Blow’s many fugal Ode openings and Locke’s fantasias, for instance), more often than not reveal their inferiority when placed next to Purcell’s. Humphrey, it must be said, was uninterested in polyphony, and this can be attributed to his all-consuming engagement with contemporary French, which had far different goals and ways to achieve those goals.

The material at E is improvisatory and seems intuitively chosen, rather than derived from anything. After teasing us with vaguely French-sounding rhythmic effects(the only dotted 8ths in the piece occur here), it eventually resolves all our downward momentum into a middle-register chorale that is perhaps even bucolic, if one can use such a word. The rapid changes only make sense in the context of an improvisation, and the piece survives largely because of the almost whimsical tone, which gives us a break from the highly-wrought intensity of A, B, C, and D. What is unusual about this is that the other ideas of the piece were exquisitely resourceful; this ending material is the opposite. Where previous sections gained salience by their proximity to each other, and by the subtle similarities uniting them, each change here seems to shed no light on the preceding material, only turning a new page. One could hear it through 18th-19 century ears as losing control of the central idea and tone of the piece. But the shapes at E seem level, and lacks laser-like intent. Maybe a visual interpretation is helpful: imagine a pen stroke, sloping downward. Instead of continuing the line, the pen suddenly veers to an even keel, and even slightly upward. The penstroke nows resembles the sketch of a hill. E is the bottom of the hill, stopping our momentum and ending our journey.


The things that make Purcell a Great composer in Dido and Aeneas and King Arthur are here in spades. Astonishingly assured technique, a way of intuiting relationships between chunks of material that seems at once spontaneous and inevitable, and a remarkable imagination that provided the ability to animate the normal-looking ink on the page into stories. This piece demonstrates that, at age 20, Purcell was not making a first-try at Fantasia writing. Rather, taken at only this one fantasia, he was essaying masterpieces in the genre that simultaneously stood toe to toe technically with the greatest masters of it, and reinvented it for a new generation. He had probably been hearing this music constantly and perhaps even writing more like it for a space before 1680. I believe this should be the first step for listeners undertaking the remarkable journey that is Purcell. This is partially because complete mastery of polyphony is one of Purcell’s most striking features. It is also because this single set of Fantasias should be regarded widely as a crowning achievement for one Western musics great traditions—the tradition of English polyphony, which stretched from the triads of Dunstable all the way to a 20 year-old, slightly pudgy, prodigy in Westminster in the year 1680.

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