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ClassicsOnline Home » FARNABY: Harpsichord Fantasias (Complete)
Giles Farnaby’s compositions comprise no less than one-sixth of the contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an immense anthology of keyboard works by the English virginalists. These pieces firmly establish Farnaby in the esteemed company of Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Tomkins. The fantasias are notable for their richly ornamented counterpoint and for keyboard pyrotechnics without parallel in the music of continental European composers.
By Derek Adlam
Early Music America
Giles Farnaby (1562-1640)
Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord
Giles Farnaby was born in London in 1562, the son of a member of the joiner’s guild, which also later accepted Giles into its ranks. Guild membership tended to stay in families as a valued privilege. There was a harpsichordmaker cousin, and perhaps Farnaby was as closely tied to instrument building as many pre-nineteenth-century masters were. If the quality of his music be not enough to dispel the suggestion that Farnaby was an amateur composer, the remaining facts of his sketchy biography ought to be. In 1592 he was referred to in print as an “expert” contributor to a collection of psalms, and graduated as Bachelor of Music at Oxford, at that time a seven-year study which required a command of Latin. (John Bull, clearly a great influence on Farnaby, was on the faculty and was granted his doctorate the same year.) The likeliest place for Farnaby to have learned Latin would have been at one of London’s choir schools, which afforded excellent opportunities for talented boys. Six years later Farnaby had his book of English madrigals printed, with a dedication that places him close to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and with congratulatory poems from some of the greatest composers of the day. Farnaby left London not long after this early triumph, and spent some years in rural Lincolnshire where he was a churchwarden at Aisthorpe, and taught the children of a member of the landed gentry. A document of this time refers to him as a “gentleman”. The family returned to London and an uncertain fate around 1610. He died in 1640, apparently in poverty, but the burial record calls him a “musitian”.
The only significant facts recorded from Farnaby’s later life are the composition of a psalter dedicated to the prebend of St Paul’s, and the inclusion of 52 of his 53 harpsichord works in a large manuscript collection compiled in the 1620s. Its general opulence surely contributed to its survival, and was such that it was long thought to have been the property of Queen Elizabeth herself. This myth was replaced in the nineteenth century by another, suggesting that it was copied by the recusant Francis Tregian, imprisoned in the Fleet prison from about 1609 until his death in 1619. The recent researches of Ruby Reid Thompson seem to indicate that it was the work of a group of professional scribes, using paper of such rare quality as is only otherwise found in the vicinity of the royal establishments, and was used for presentation drawings by Inigo Jones. This Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, thus named after the collector who donated it to the museum he founded in Cambridge, seems to have been intended as a gift for a person of very high rank who desired a large collection of the best English keyboard music. There is some reason to think it may have returned to England after a period in Holland, in which case a possible recipient might have been the music-loving daughter of James I, Elizabeth, the “Winter Queen” of Bohemia, who lived in exile in The Hague for decades.
Farnaby’s works comprise no less than one-sixth of the contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an immense anthology of one of the greatest schools of keyboard composition, the English virginalists, named after the rather odd Renaissance English term for the harpsichord. These pieces firmly establish Farnaby in the company of Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Tomkins, and their proud place here in their sole significant source tells us a great deal about the esteem in which the composer was held in the highest circles. It is regrettable that the sparse historical record makes it impossible to provide a further context for them.
From its origins in the sixteenth century the term Fantasia indicated a sober piece of thematic development in strict polyphony with no text and no fixed melody or cantus firmus. The virginalists, too, begin their fantasias by developing one or more themes through the voices, but add to their contrapuntal working a final toccata, a closing section of idiomatic keyboard pyrotechnics and polyrhythms, which corresponds with the later idea of a fantasia. A last vestige of this arrangement can be found in the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, which almost always begin with a brief imitative section, a sort of bow to the old style of learned composition, before descending into playful anarchy.
There is another category of fantasia altogether, represented by three of Farnaby’s works recorded here. They might better be called part-song arrangements, or ornamented intabulations of polyphonic vocal works. Two of the originals remain unidentified, the other is one of Farnaby’s madrigals, which he called “canzonets”. The four intertwining vocal melodies are freely altered in favour of lush passage-work which takes on a life of its own.
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FARNABY: Harpsichord Fantasias (Complete)