Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

1. Fantasy in music Although Fantasy is a term normally restricted to narrated material – thus excluding delusions, dream imagery, fancies, and other forms which employ the mode of the Fantastic – it is worth noting that the term has complex ramifications for music history.

It was during the 16th century that independent instrumental music became fully established in Europe; ricercars and "fantasias" were common in Italy and Spain by the 1530s. A fantasia was defined in 1595 by the composer Thomas Morley as being what happens "when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth it and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit". The fantasia gradually evolved into the classical sonata form, and therefore lies at the core of the dominant form of Western music from about 1770. In the 19th century some Romantic composers endowed the term with a meaning closer to that in literature, as in Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830) (see below; see also Marvin Kaye), while Robert Schumann's choice of the title Fantasiestücke for four sets of purely instrumental pieces (plus five other works with "fantasy" in their titles) was inspired by Fantasiestücke (coll 1814), a collection of essays on music by E T A Hoffmann.

Ever since the first secular music dramas were composed at the end of the 16th century, composers have explored the whole of pre-20th-century fantasy literature in operas, cantatas, oratorios, songs and ballets, as well as symphonic poems and other instrumental works. Some themes have continued to fascinate composers throughout these four centuries, in particular the stories of Orpheus and Faust. The extra-musical bases for these compositions range from word-for-word settings of existing texts or literal evocations of a scenario, via ones that have been paraphrased, abridged, distorted, parodied, excerpted or collaged, to those that were specially devised, sometimes entirely by the composer.

The repertory of operas whose plots contain elements of the fantastic is huge; and for obvious reasons a high proportion of music containing narrative and voiced fantasy lies in this category. (see Opera.)

Cantatas and oratorios – certainly in the 17th and 18th centuries, when staged works were often thought blasphemous and consequently banned – are frequently operas without the physical action. The earliest dramatic cantatas include Alessandro Stradella's L'anima del purgatorio ["The Spirit of Purgatory"] (circa 1670), which features Lucifer, an angel and tormented souls, his solo cantata L'Arianna (circa 1670), Giovanni Battista Bassani's collection of ten solo amorous cantatas, Armonie delle Sirene ["The Harmony of the Sirens"] (1680) and Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Orphée descendant aux enfers ["Orpheus's Descent into the Underworld"] (1683). Among the over 800 cantatas and similar works composed by Alessandro Scarlatti, about a dozen from between the early 1680s and 1716 deal with fantasy themes (mostly featuring Venus and/or Cupid), such as Diana e Endimione (circa 1680-1685).

German and English composers turned to the medium slightly later, usually in more substantial compositions with several solo voices and choir; the only works by Johann Sebastian Bach that feature fantasy characters – with a subtitle that was common for operas, (dramma per musica) – are three of his secular cantatas: Der zufriedengestellte Äolus ["The Appeasement of Aeolus"] (1725) featuring Aeolus, Athena, Pomona and Zephyrus; Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan ["The Contest of Phoebus and Pan"] (?1729), including also Momus, Mercury, Tmolus and Midas; and Herkules auf dem Scheidewege ["Hercules at the Crossroads"] (1733) with Hercules, Virtue, Pleasure and Mercury. Similar forces are used in: Handel's late cantata, The Choice of Hercules (1750), whose librettist, probably Thomas Morell, based the story indirectly on Xenophon's Memorabilia (after Prodicus of Ceos's Horai); Maurice Greene's dramatic pastoral The Judgement of Hercules (1740); John Stanley's ode The Choice of Hercules (circa 1750); and Stanley's The Gay Nymph, also composed around the middle of the century. Although the genre of the small-scale dramatic cantata faded in importance after the mid-18th century, later examples include several German cantatas on the Pygmalion story, Haydn's solo cantata Arianna a Naxos (?1789) and a much more substantial work with three solo voices and chorus by Thomas Linley, Lyric Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare (1776), usually known as The Shakespeare Ode, based on the fantasy aspects of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600), Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623) and The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).

Until well after the death of Handel in 1759, oratorios were often operas in disguise; early examples are therefore integrated into the Opera entry. Sacred oratorios may depict supernatural subjects, but not in a fictional mode. Some later oratorios, like Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (1900) and Sir Michael Tippett's The Mask of Time (1983), occasionally put fantasy elements into visualizable form.

The region of Song is of course enormous, and the subject matter of a huge number of songs might be fairly deemed fantastic. But with exceptions – like Franz Schubert's "Erlkönig" ["The Erl King"] – these fantastic elements fall more into the realm of image and dream than of narrative.

Ballet is a vexed question. Most traditional ballets are of course narrative, but they are not normally voiced; and very often the wraiths and deities who feature are in fact Visions experienced by the main cast. The origin of ballet in Greek dance and Roman Pantomime is of fantasy interest, but the interest is most cogently conveyed to fantasy audiences through verbal descriptions – often in terms which evoke Ritual or Revel – illustrative of an ongoing story. Some ballets are undoubtedly fantasy, and may be the main vehicle for some particular fantasy stories. There are very many examples from the 17th and 18th century of ballets, either independent or built into operas, in which Gods and Goddesses disport themselves in movements that evoke Allegory. Later individual titles of more direct interest – most including supernatural figures out of the repertory of early Romanticism – include: Adolphe Adam's Giselle (1841); Friedrich Burgmüller's French ballet La Péri for which Théophile Gautier wrote the libretto; Jacques Offenbach's opera-ballet Die Rheinnixen (1864), which is concerned with watersprites, along with a large number of Undine ballets, including Adolphe Adam's La fille du Danube (1836), Cesare Pugni's Ondine, ou La Naiade (1843), Tchaikovsky's Undina (1869), Prokofiev's unperformed youthful Undina (1904-1907) and Hans Werner Henze's Undine (1958); Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker (1891-1892), based on the E T A Hoffmann tale; Prokofiev's Cinderella (1941-1944); and Leonard Bernstein's Dybbuk (1954). There are many more, Tchaikovsky being particularly prolific with ballets (aside from those already mentioned) like Swan Lake (1877) and Sleeping Beauty (1890), while much of Stravinsky's ballet work – like The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) – is of clear fantasy interest.

Many instrumental works have fantastic titles and/or are designed to evoke fantastic images in the listener – like Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897), based on the poem by Goethe. However, these are not voiced and thus can scarcely be treated as narratives.

Fantasy musicals are very common, and have often been filmed; just a few examples of those discussed in this book are Brigadoon (1954), Mary Poppins (1964), Finian's Rainbow (1968), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1986). [HD/JC]

2. Music in fantasy Many writers of fantasy also write music, usually Songs, which are sometimes narrative. Professional composer/writers include Sarah Ash, John Brunner, Anthony Burgess (under his real name, John Anthony Burgess Wilson), Samuel R Delany; E T A Hoffmann, Michael Moorcock and Somtow Sucharitkul (see S P Somtow). Most of these have performed their own works in passing, while others are better known as performers, often of their own compositions; they include Gael Baudino, Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Anne McCaffrey and Roger Zelazny.

The relationship between music and fantasy is in fact so profound and so pervasive that it might be easier to list texts with no relationship at all to music – whether superficial or deeply shaping – than to survey that relationship. In the Taproot Texts from which modern fantasy writers have taken themes and roles and plots, music and Magic are frequently associated (characters invoking magic almost invariably chant or sing or incant): the "music of the spheres" is a metaphor, sometimes taken literally in hermetic texts, of the sound of the Universe surceaselessly singing itself into being; on the mortal plane, as a form of rapture or intoxicant (see Apollo; Faust; Orpheus; Pan), music can be heard as an embodiment (see As Above, So Below) of higher orders of being which engenders profound changes in mortals, from Ritual dances at the change of Seasons to Metamorphosis, as a sign that some Trickster figure (like the Pied Piper) is in the process of bedazzling the mundane world, or that a figure from this world (see Tam Lin) has been charmed out of reality. More mundanely, music is administered to Heroes in the midst of Quests; and music, as in the Commedia dell'Arte, can be used to accompany and intensify action.

In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or Companions who are musicians or (more likely) Bards or Minstrels tend to become Liminal Beings, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being of the world. They put into a form – which may have the magic capacity to act as some kind of "song of power", as significantly in Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power (omni 1994), or which may constitute an act of Prophecy – some version of the essential Story being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed. This function may be relatively trivial – as in most Genre Fantasy set in Fantasyland, where the straightforward entertainment value of Song tends to be emphasized – or it may shape entire texts, an example of the latter being Peter S Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song (1993), which reads (in part) as an excursus upon the eponymous ballad. Some significant novels – Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947) being the most obvious – have translated the Faustian pact (see Faust) into an argument about music as Possession, daimonic or secular. Very occasionally, as in Marvin Kaye's Fantastique (1992), which is constructed as a textual analogue of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830), a fantasy writer may take the actual shape of a composition and construct a structural paraphrase. Exercises of this sort are potentially of great interest.

In Supernatural Fiction, music tends to induce – for good or for ill – characters in this world to heed messages from, or actually to enter, a different plane; it is, in other words, a form of seduction or Initiation. [JC]


  • The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: SF Music.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.