“Fantasy” is one of the most iconic keywords for the Romantic era. In sharp contrast with Enlightenment rationalism and with the cult of reason it preached, the Romantics favoured the expression of an individual’s feelings; objective reason was downplayed in favour of personal subjectivity. The constraints of logical, consequential processes were rejected, whilst the free flights of fantasy seduced artists and thinkers alike. The shiny and flawless order and beauty of classical antiquity, which had inspired the eighteenth century and its Classicism, gave way to a new taste for the unconscious, for the suggestions of dreams, for the horrid and the sublime, and for that aspiration to infinity which transcends the limits of human rationality.
This Da Vinci Classics album leads us to the discovery of Romantic fantasies and Fantasies, in a manner of speaking. The Fantasy, as a musical genre, was not the creation of Romanticism; indeed, it dates back (with this name) to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it is as old as music itself. Indeed, a Fantasy is a genre, but not a form; its form lies precisely in its being “formless”. Of course, nothing is “formless”; the absence of recognizable repetitions or compositional patterns does not imply that form, as such, is missing. And, as we will see shortly, some of the best Fantasies have very clear formal structures, at times clearly reminiscent of the most rigorous processes of other, more typified, genres. In general, however, a composer indicates as a “Fantasy” a piece which does not strictly correspond to any given, pre-existing formal structure. Fantasy, indeed, indicates freedom; thus, for instance, Beethoven labelled two of his Piano Sonatas as “Sonata quasi una Fantasia”. This suggests that their form is inspired by the Sonata form, but that they do not quite respect the compositional rules of the established genre. (For instance, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata has virtually nothing to do with a classical Sonata form). Indeed, in the case of some composers, Fantasies are more structured than happens with the first examples of this genre. Renaissance and early Baroque Fantasies frequently sound like “recordings” of the composer’s improvisation. The only discernible thread unifying the work as such is that of the composer’s fantasy. And this, as we all know, may follow unpredictable patterns; when we let our fantasy free, it can lead us practically anywhere.
This kind of improvisational freedom, of course, cannot be fully enacted unless the composer/improviser is unconstrained by external limits. This total liberty is found, in a very particular fashion, in the case of composers/improvisers who play self-sufficient instruments. (Here too we find a typically Romantic element, in the affirmation of the autonomous self!). Many Renaissance Fantasies are for the lute; many Baroque examples of this genre are for keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord or clavichord; the best outlet for the composer’s “fantasy” in the Romantic era is the piano.
This is reinforced by the fact that many composers of the Romantic era were excellent pianists in turn. Certainly, this applies fully to Robert Schumann. Even though he had to abandon his dreams of a virtuoso career as a touring pianist rather early, he remained a very skilled pianist throughout his life, and dedicated to the piano many of his finest masterpieces. These doubtlessly include his magnificent Fantasy op. 17, unanimously acknowledged as one of the most perfect works he penned. In particular, arguably, it is one of the best large-scale structures he created: many others of his masterpieces are collections of short pieces, such as Carnaval op. 9 or the Davidsbündlertänze op. 6, or Kinderszenen op. 15. Here, instead, we have a powerful architecture sustained for nearly half an hour. Indeed, Schumann’s penchant for the aphoristic piece, gathered in larger collections, has to do precisely with his superabundant fantasy (with a small f). His genius was at its best when it could be nourished with constantly renewed stimuli. He loved to improvise, as he recommended to young musicians: “If Heaven has bestowed on you a lively imagination, you will often sit in solitary hours spellbound to your piano, seeking expression for your inmost soul in harmonies; and all the more mysteriously will you feel drawn into magic circles as it were, the more unclear the realm of harmony as yet may be to you. The happiest hours of youth are these. Beware, however, of abandoning yourself too often to a talent which may tempt you to waste power and time on phantoms. Mastery of form, the power of clearly moulding your productions, you will only gain through the sure token of writing. Write, then, more than you improvise”. This Rule written by Schumann may be taken as the manifesto of his Fantasy op. 17. Its third movement, with its enchanting and hypnotizing spirals of soft arpeggios, and with its delicate modulations, embodies the experience he describes, i.e. the (seemingly) free exploration of how a harmony may grow out from another, in surprising and yet consequential combinations. But the Fantasy as a whole reveals the composer’s full “mastery of form”.
The third movement’s arpeggios, indeed, recall the atmosphere of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, cited above. Written in 1836, this piece was linked to Beethoven, inasmuch as it was conceived as a homage to the deceased maestro, and in order to collect funds for the creation of a monument to him in his birth city, Bonn. The first movement’s broad lines, its unquiet restlessness, and its powerful inspiration are among the most unforgettable of Schumann’s inspirations. The second movement follows, with its heroic and martial style, with its procession in the grandioso fashion, and with its infamously difficult concluding leaps. But the key to all this is found in the third movement, which seems to tell us that “life is dream”.
The same, perhaps surprising, clarity of form is found in the splendid Fantasy op. 49 written by Frédéric Chopin a few years later (1842). Here too we find reminiscences of martial parades, but they are much more lugubrious and darker than in Schumann. Frequently, the rather depressive mood established at the outset by the descending pattern in the low register gives way to impetuous outbursts of dazzling arpeggios, building up majestic waves – as if attempting to rescue the piece from its obscure atmosphere. As in Schumann’s Fantasy, elements reminiscent of spirituality and religion surface, in the chorale-like passages which suggest an elevation of the spirit above the darkness and uncertainty of the human experience.
A clear structural pattern is also discernible in the Fantasy composed by Alexander Skrjabin in 1900. At that time, the composer had a job as a teacher at the Conservatory of Moscow; this occasionally prevented him from focusing intensely on composition. This beautiful piece, which poses extremely difficult technical demands on the performer, is written in a very classical Sonata form. It is reminiscent of the composer’s Second Sonata, appropriately called Sonata-Fantasia, and offers an epic narrative throughout its length. In particular, the majestic final dénouement is typical for late-Romantic aesthetics; it powerfully suggests echoes of Wagner’s Isolden Liebestod, particularly if one considers the version of this opera scene as filtered by Liszt’s piano version. In spite of all this, seemingly the composer was not particularly proud of this composition. Apparently, he never played it in public, and, allegedly (but not very probably) he had also forgotten to have written it. Though this seems unlikely, what is certain is that this complex and beautiful piece deserves more attention than it has hitherto received.
The Fantasy written by Anton Bruckner is even more in need of recognition. It belongs to the thin collection of piano music written by a composer who is best known for his symphonic oeuvre. In fact, the imprint of Bruckner’s compositional thought, marked by his orchestral concept, is clearly observable also in this piece. Here too, the technical demands are high, and the musical idea broad and complex. And, once more, this Fantasy has a powerful structure, built on two sections of a markedly different character. The first movement is an intense, expressive, and lyrical piece, where echoes of an earlier Romanticism resound, and even reminiscences of the eighteenth century, with its elegance and refinement. Bruckner had written this piece for his pupil, Alexandrine Soyka, and perhaps traits of her character are observed as if in transparence.
Some of the typical features of Bruckner’s musical language are also evident; for instance, his particular penchant for combining duple and triple time, so as to create a rhythmic contrast which is, at the same time, an element of dynamism and a conveyor of flexibility and musical flow.
Together, these four marvellous Fantasies represent the quintessence of Romanticism and late-Romanticism. E. T. A. Hoffmann, who can be considered among the ideologues of Romanticism, famously affirmed that fantasy is an “unfamiliar region”, “enclosed within the realm which, in true life and being, the human spirit governs according to his own pleasure”. Through these musical Fantasies, we are led to that enchanted realm; we dwell in it, enjoy it in its beauty and mystery, and are rewarded for our venturing there with the utmost pleasure of a free flight of our imagination.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Sara De Ascaniis Born in Italy in 1987 into a family of musician, Sara began to play by ear and improvise on the piano at the age of two. At seven years old she entered the Music Conservatory Arrigo Pedrollo in Vicenza, where she was a student of Antonio Rigobello, and two years later she gave her first solo recital. By the time she was eleven, Sara was already appearing as a soloist with orchestras throughout Italy. Her performances of Beethoven Piano Concerto n.3 and Schumann Concerto have been broadcast on the national radio and television with high acclaim.
After the Master's Degree summa cum laude at the age of 18, she studied at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg under Claudius Tanski and Imre Rohmann and at the Music Conservatory Cesare Pollini in Padova under Konstantin Bogino (Postgraduate). In addition, she has taken precious advice from outstanding musicians and pedagogues, such as Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, Pavel Gililov, Leonid Margarius, Benedetto Lupo, Lilya Zilberstein and Boris Petrushansky.
Winner of prestigious awards in Italy and abroad, such as the J.S. Bach Prize in Sestri Levante, the Silvio Omizzolo Prize in Padua, the Vito Frazzi Prize in Florence, the Mozartpreis at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Baden-Württemberg International Piano Competition (Germany), Sara has been performing as a soloist in prestigious venues including La Fenice in Venice, Sala dei Giganti in Padua, Teatro Bibiena in Mantova, Teatro dal Verme in Milan, Ehrbar Saal in Vienna, Wiener Saal in Salzburg, Steinway Haus in Munich, Tanna Schulich Hall in Montrèal and Bing Theatre in Los Angeles.
Also an enthusiastic recitalist and chamber musician, she performed with various ensembles from Duo up to Quintet, working together with artists such as Rainer Schmidt, Wolfgang Redik, Igor Ozim, Enrico Bronzi and Alois Brandhofer. Her numerous appearances have included Aurora Chamber Music Festival (Sweden), Internationaler Konzertverein Bodensee (Germany), Salzburger Kammermusikfestival, iPalpiti Festival (California), LeXGiornate in Brescia, Il Maggio del Pianoforte in Naples, La Societá dei Concerti in Milan.
Through the years she developed a strong passion for teaching and earned a Master's Degree in Piano Pedagogy from Mozarteum University Salzburg. After teaching in various music academies in Berlin, she has been appointed Piano Professor at the Music Conservatory Cesare Pollini in Padua (2017). In the academic year 2018/2019 she was also Piano Professor at the Music Conservatory Luca Marenzio in Brescia, and from 2021 she is Piano Professor at the Music Conservatory Giuseppe Tartini in Trieste.
Upcoming engagements include concerts in Europe, USA and Mexico, also with her brother, renowed violinist Davide De Ascaniis. Sara and Davide have been performing together in concert halls worldwide since their childhood.
Alexander Scriabin: (b Moscow, 25 Dec 1871/6 Jan 1872; d Moscow, 14/27 April 1915). Russian composer and pianist. One of the most extraordinary figures musical culture has ever witnessed, Skryabin has remained for a century a figure of cultish idolatry, reactionary yet modernist disapproval, analytical fascination and, finally, aesthetic re-evaluation and renewal. The transformation of his musical language from one that was affirmatively Romantic to one that was highly singular in its thematism and gesture and had transcended usual tonality – but was not atonal – could perhaps have occurred only in Russia where Western harmonic mores, although respected in most circles, were less fully entrenched than in Europe. While his major orchestral works have fallen out of and subsequently into vogue, his piano compositions inspired the greatest of Russian pianists to give their most noteworthy performances. Skryabin himself was an exceptionally gifted pianist, but as an adult he performed only his own works in public. The cycle of ten sonatas is arguably of the most consistent high quality since that of Beethoven and acquired growing numbers of champions throughout the 20th century.
Anton Bruckner (Joseph)
(b Ansfelden, nr Linz, 4 Sept 1824; d Vienna, 11 Oct 1896). Austrian composer. One of the most innovatory figures of the second half of the 19th century, Bruckner is remembered primarily for his symphonies and sacred compositions. His music is rooted in the formal traditions of Beethoven and Schubert and inflected with Wagnerian harmony and orchestration. Until late in his career his reputation rested mainly on his improvisatory skills at the organ. As a teacher he communicated the contrapuntal system of Simon Sechter to a generation of Viennese students that included Felix Mottl, Heinrich Schenker, Franz and Josef Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.
Robert Schumann: (b Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; d Endenich, nr Bonn, 29 July 1856). German composer and music critic. While best remembered for his piano music and songs, and some of his symphonic and chamber works, Schumann made significant contributions to all the musical genres of his day and cultivated a number of new ones as well. His dual interest in music and literature led him to develop a historically informed music criticism and a compositional style deeply indebted to literary models. A leading exponent of musical Romanticism, he had a powerful impact on succeeding generations of European composers.