Tippett’s priority here was to continue his exploration of traditional genres—with the old fantasia, with variations again and also with a preparatory study for a full-scale concerto. Thus the work consists of a nicely balanced sequence of theme, five variations (portraits of friends, mostly unidentified), development, fugue and theme recapitulated.
The Fantasia is one of the least performed of Tippett’s works, chiefly because it is difficult to programme. It may also be remarked that its profoundly original language is to be heard more in the detail than in the general course of the music, whose flowing gestures are sometimes derivative (recalling Rachmaninov perhaps, in variation four) and whose interpolated cadenzas sometimes suggest a stereotyped concerto rhetoric (in variations three and five). Yet it remains a full-blooded and dramatic work, ‘vigorous and gay’, as Tippett wrote in his note for its first performance. ‘Gay’ at that time had not lost its original meaning, although Tippett’s use of it was in fact rather specialized, referring to W B Yeats, who thought that in times of conflict and misery art should not reflect suffering but be transformed into a defiant ‘gaiety’. As if to endorse that, Tippett once revealed that he found himself adding words to the Fantasia’s fifth variation: ‘Ah—whoopee’.
from notes by Ian Kemp © 2007