John Ward, Fantasies a4

July 12, 2013

Up on my music stand today is the treble part of the PRB edition of John Ward’s Six Fantasias for Four Viols. These are the “Oxford” fantasias, scored for trTTB. Many years ago, I managed to play some delightful four-part Ward fantasies as background music for a public reception, but these were not they. They couldn’t have been – the ones played on that occasion were accessible.

I regard playing through these by myself as training for viol playing in the Next Life. Just as Rugby Union is considered by many as the game they play in Heaven, I’m sure John Ward’s viol fantasies are the music one listens to in Heaven. I doubt I’ll ever get to play any of the six-part fantasies in this lifetime because it’s simply too hard to get six viol players in the one room.  However, I can get a very clear idea of what Ward sounds like from the recordings of the five- and six-part consort pieces by the Consort of Musicke and Phantasm. My tackling the individual parts of the four-part fantasies means they are as equally beyond my reach as the six-part because the four-part pieces never been recorded, not even by amateurs on YouTube.

No recordings and no likelihood of ever playing the ‘complete’ thing makes for pretty grim stuff. What’s worse, as editor Virginia Brookes notes, these look like mature works, “with more extreme chromaticism, a greater sense of key relationship and much agile, specifically instrumental writing”. They appear, certainly on paper, to be far more difficult than the six-part works.

A safe bet in tackling these is to consider them as technical practice: getting finger agility by isolating particular themes, rather than trying to understand the whole. And playing them extremely slowly.

So, in practising these for the Next Life, I note the following:

Fantasia a4 no.1 in G minor. Very good practice for playing ascending scales in this key. From b.35, there are the characteristic demisemiquaver ‘ornaments’ to contend with.

Fantasia a4 no.2 in C minor. Again, very good practice for dashing at speed between strings with all the incidentals inherent in the key.

Fantasia a4 no.3  in Dminor(-ish). Treble 1 starts off this Fantasia so it really sets the mood as well as the tempo. Dotted demisemiquavers (bb.18-19) mean it should be light but not too fast.

Fantasia a4 no.4 in A minor: By now, the common features of Ward are shining through – curly scalar runs of semiquavers. A characteristic homophony/”choral” section in bb.15-20 contrasts wildly with the following imitative scraps to the cadence at p.28.

Fantasia a4 no.5 in A minor: Yet more ascending scale passages with frightening leaps between strings.

Fantasia a4 no.6 in C. Treble 1 starts the piece. The opening theme has octave leaps. Watch for the demisemiquaver run in b18!

This lively music, full of twists and turns, looks terribly off-putting. What keeps me going is the memory of the soaring melodies and curtains of harmonies recalled from hearing the six-part Fantasies played by the experts!
ward a4 fantasies PRB


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