The free Fantasie in F sharp minor H300 (Wq67) was composed only a year before Bach’s death. The composer was renowned for his extemporizations at the keyboard, often favouring for them the very soft but expressive clavichord. The English music historian Charles Burney visited Bach in Hamburg in the early 1770s and penned a famous portrait of the composer improvising fantasies at the clavichord for several hours after dinner. ‘He played with little intermission, until near 11 o’clock at night’, wrote Burney. ‘During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance’ (Dr Burney’s Musical Tours in Europe
, vol. ii, ed. P A Scholes (London, 1959), p.219). The Fantasie in F sharp minor is one of Bach’s longest works in this genre, but it is typical in containing a series of contrasting sections in different tempos and textures. In the last chapter of his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen
, Bach deals specifically with the fantasy as a compositional form. He remarks that an ability to improvise is the most important indicator of a musician’s potential as a composer. ‘A good future in composition can be assuredly predicted for anyone who can improvise’, he wrote (C P E Bach: Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments
, translated by William J Mitchell (New York, 1949), p.430). At the same time, however, Bach cautions that free fantasies, though by nature improvisatory, must be built on lucid frameworks. He even provides in his treatise an example of such a fantasy with its skeletal reduction. Such coherence is readily apparent in H300. Three distinctive motivic elements recur throughout the work: an Adagio characterized by a chord in the left hand answered by three repeated notes in the right; an Allegretto section with virtuosic figuration; and a Largo in 12/8 with gently oscillating quavers. This late work, indeed, shows the culmination of Bach’s invention, combining the imagination of his youth with the consummate skill of a senior statesman.
from notes by Leta Miller © 2012
University of California, Santa Cruz