Fantasia Chromatica, a work by J S Bach

Fantasia Chromatica…


It’s maybe 30 years since I began my „voyage of discovery“ with JS Bach’s masterpiece, the “Fantasia Chromatica”, BWV903. A journey which began in Brisbane, at the University of Queensland, under the tutelage of Elizabeth Morgan, and has taken me to a place of deep appreciation for Bach and his spontaneous wizardry – because after the unexpected harmonic wildness (Bach’s specialty?) and after you‘ve lost track of which key you’re supposed to be in, he brings you back to shore, safe and sound in d minor (depending on how one chooses to finish the Fantasia). I’ve had the good fortune to work on the piece with various colleagues, among them pianists, conductors, composers, who each communicated their sense of musical structure and grammar through vivid eyebrow motion and wild hand gestures; I hope I’ve gained some worthwhile insight! I’ve performed it at least once a year in the last 20 years – at the top of a snowy mountain in France (after trudging through snow, 6 months pregnant), I’ve performed it with two gorgeous male dancers, who I didn’t dare watch for fear of losing my place and causing them to trip, I’ve performed it at an International Women’s Day breakfast (at 7am – ouch!). It remains a challenge – on all levels, technical, emotional and intellectual. If my brain hurts at the end of the piece then I know I’ve done it well…

Johann Sebastian Bach is a monumental composer. For someone who preferred playing the viola to the violin he could have written more for the former! I have absolutely no qualms about stealing his chamber music from other instruments, my personal favourites being the d minor Partita, the g minor Viola da Gamba Sonata, and obviously, the Fantasia Chromatica. I find these works mesmerizingly beautiful; pain, heartbreak, rage, but also love, serenity and (occasionally!) joy transfigured into tangible musical poetry, frozen architecture (to quote Goethe), as if there were always beauty, truth and dignity present in our suffering, if we would only go deeper, and courageously peel back one more painful layer of unbearable experience. Bach himself was orphaned at age 10; he knows about loss, and he uses it as an expansive place, as a catalyst for colour and expression. We are now aware of the extent of the coding in Bach’s music – the gematrie – the (numerical) significances of various notes, the cross-referencing of chorales and encoding of people’s names and church festivals and events… His music takes on architectural characteristics of unheeded proportions. Although I’m not aware of the presence of chorales and citations in this work, the opening “statement” is referenced throughout the work, in differing tempi, often interspersed with long arpeggiated lines, giving it the feel of “festina lente”, hastening slowly.

Which composers can truly claim to be free of Bach and his influence…It still strikes me as hilarious that, following the infamous and reluctant meeting of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, the latter apparently raged, “this wooden Johannes, upholder of the Bach traditions…” –  as if that were something negative! (Brahms couldn’t bear Wagner because he “needed a programme” in order to compose, and referred to the local brothel as the “Wagner Club”! No love lost there…) Mauricio Kagel states simply, “It might be, that a composer doesn’t believe in God. In Bach, however, they all believe!”

The Fantasia Chromatica was composed during the composer’s Cöthen period, between 1717-23; “Chromatica” was probably added by Franz Anton Hoffmeister when he published the work in 1802, in the same way that he presumably nick-named Beethoven’s famous piano sonata the “Moonlight Sonata”. (Mendelssohn apparently performed it as an opening piece for his recitals, as did Liszt, Busoni and Brahms; well before the big Renaissance of Bach’s music in the 20th Century, the Fantasia Chromatica enjoyed a fair amount of fame.)

A 17-piece orchestra of renowned musicians (soloists from the disbanded ensemble of Frederick the Great) had been assembled by Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, for which Bach was invited to compose secular music. So eager was he to begin in Köthen that he forgot to resign from his original position in Weimar, as concertmaster in the employ of the brother of Prince Leopold, Prince Johann, who promptly put him in prison for four weeks…

The Fantasia Chromatica is monolithic, it has no predecessor*, and perhaps only one successor, Mozart’s Fantasia in c minor KV475. An original manuscript has never been found; the earliest copy dates from 1730, and the sheer volume of copies turning up thereafter (also with some variations) bear testimony to its immediate and immense popularity. I like to think one can time travel with this piece, and be present at a performance of the great master himself, witnessing his phenomenal capacity for improvisation. The Fantasia Chromatica represents a significant moment in musical history – we are absolved from the tyranny of form over content; Bach holds no rules sacred, every note can pivot upon itself enharmonically and take us in a completely unexpected direction. In this sense, content triumphs over form, in wonderful anarchy.

Basically in 3 parts, it begins with mesmerizing runs and chords covering the entire range of the instrument, in an unrelenting toccata, followed by a recitative, which could be described as one of the most extensive instrumental recitatives of all time, with a wandering harmony (reminiscent of Wagner), in which all adherences to a central tonality are abandoned; any given note can function as an enharmonic pivot. The Fantasia concludes with quasi- improvised chords over a sometimes obscured “d” pedal point and then a token ending for the viola, because we don’t have enough fingers to perform the Fugue… I personally enjoy the ending concocted by Hartmut Lindemann, it’s concise, it echoes the beginning and is manageable.

I use a modern bow for the performance of the Fantasia Chromatica; being a transcription from a harpsichord work, it takes a different set of considerations to music transcribed from a violin work. (Zoltan Kodaly transcribed this work in 1950.) I do find it incredible how a bow can change your whole physical presence with a piece of music, as if the bow were some kind of simultaneous translator, bringing our awareness to the particular musical language with its inherent grammar, the nuances and natural weighting of notes in a particular passage suddenly coming to life in unexpected ways. Certain mysteries surrounding Bach are suddenly unraveled. Bach and Mozart were too difficult when I was a student – so many “do not”s surrounding them. Of course it’s easier to concentrate on the “do”s… and the appropriate bow helps an awful lot! Having said that, I perform the Fantasia with a modern bow – the long lines are difficult to “draw” with a shorter baroque or classical bow. It was originally intended for harpsichord – so considerations pertaining to articulation are obsolete. Here it’s more about preserving the toccata character, it’s more about the percussive action of the left hand, paired with long lines drawn with the bow.

The Fantasia Chromatica is a mesmerizing journey, a magic carpet ride, one on which time becomes distorted and space expanded, heightened through levels and layers of overtones. The greatest challenge of the piece for me is keeping the lines free and clean, to not be distracted by emotional intention, because it occurs naturally if the balance is correct, if the relationship between the “static” and the “fluid” is harmonious. The virtuosic viola indeed has a voice from the Baroque era.

*”Unendliche Mühe habe ich mir gegeben, noch ein Stück dieser Art von Bach aufzufinden, aber vergeblich. Diese Fantasie ist einzig und hat nie ihres Gleichen gehabt.” „I have gone to endless trouble, to seek out another work of Bach’s similar to this, but in vain. The Fantasia is unique, overshadowed by none.“ Nicholas Forkel, Bach’s first biographer,