About this Piece
Flights of fancy, the making of fantasies, breaking the bonds of formal structures—that was what gave the early 19th-century Romantics their modus operandi and their greatest joy. Yet, we find that beginning in the late 16th century, the title Fantasy (in one of its many spellings—Fantaisie in French, Fantasia in Italian, Phantasie in German, and plain old Fantasy in English) began to be applied to keyboard pieces in which the nature of improvisation played an important role, and/or in which formal strictness was somewhat relaxed—in other words, pieces that took flights of fancy. The freedom of these flights appealed even to the most highly disciplined of composers, for examples, Bach in his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Mozart in his D-minor Fantasy, and Beethoven in his two sonatas titled quasi una Fantasia, to name just a few. Curiously, even though the composers of the post-Beethoven era needed no special license for their flights of fancy, we find the title Fantasy used by the most freedom loving of the breed—Schumann and Chopin. What is even more curious is that the present work by Chopin is probably the most tightly structured of that composer’s large compositions.
To be sure, Chopin’s title Fantaisie is confirmed by the aura of drama that pervades its pages, by the outbursts of passion and the multi-shades of temperament that crowd upon one another, by the large design of grand expressiveness. Yet throughout, Chopin remains in control of the various elements with as certain a formal grasp as he ever attained. Tellingly, he accomplished this not by slavishly adhering to an established form, but by allowing the materials to create their own inevitable structure. The work was composed in 1841, the most harmonious year in his stormy relationship with the author George Sand (the pen name of Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, Baroness Dudevant). Many of his masterpieces in miniature had already been written—waltzes, etudes, preludes, mazurkas, etc.—all verifying Schumann’s ringing words of discovery in 1831, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”
The Fantaisie opens with an extended slow section built on a pair of two-measure ideas, the first a descending, halting figure, the second a legato but still severe thought. There is great portent of drama here and it is borne out by the subsequent materials that gather force and lead to an agitated single-note theme over a triplet accompaniment. An airy double-note theme in major key follows, but it is routed by a fierce triplet passage that climbs to the upper reaches of the keyboard and then careens down. This signals an ever-increasing show of emotion which, after four precision-defying sets of octaves in contrary motion, explodes in angry repeated chords. These are followed by a strangely aimless march, after which now-familiar materials are brought back, with only one new, meditative thought remaining to be presented.
After the repetitions have gathered strength and urgency, the meditative melody interrupts, this time with great force, but very soon, in a dramatic masterstroke, it dissolves into a gentle, pleading recitative. After a pause, harp-like figures in major reach for the top of the keyboard, and after another pause, two chords, as if intoning a ringing, perhaps cynical “amen,” close the Fantaisie, not in F minor, but in seriously resolute A-flat major. —Orrin Howard