Giles Farnaby: Fantasias and Canzonets
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Giles Farnaby (1562-1640)
Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord
Giles Farnaby was born in London in 1562, the son of amember of the joiner's guild, which also later acceptedGiles into its ranks. Guild membership tended to stay infamilies as a valued privilege. There was a harpsichordmakercousin, and perhaps Farnaby was as closely tiedto instrument building as many pre-nineteenth-centurymasters were. If the quality of his music be not enoughto dispel the suggestion that Farnaby was an amateurcomposer, the remaining facts of his sketchy biographyought to be. In 1592 he was referred to in print as an\expert" contributor to a collection of psalms, andgraduated as Bachelor of Music at Oxford, at that time aseven-year study which required a command of Latin.
(John Bull, clearly a great influence on Farnaby, was onthe faculty and was granted his doctorate the same year.)The likeliest place for Farnaby to have learned Latinwould have been at one of London's choir schools,which afforded excellent opportunities for talentedboys. Six years later Farnaby had his book of Englishmadrigals printed, with a dedication that places himclose to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and withcongratulatory poems from some of the greatestcomposers of the day. Farnaby left London not longafter this early triumph, and spent some years in ruralLincolnshire where he was a churchwarden atAisthorpe, and taught the children of a member of thelanded gentry. A document of this time refers to him asa "gentleman". The family returned to London and anuncertain fate around 1610. He died in 1640, apparentlyin poverty, but the burial record calls him a "musitian".
The only significant facts recorded from Farnaby'slater life are the composition of a psalter dedicated tothe prebend of St Paul's, and the inclusion of 52 of his53 harpsichord works in a large manuscript collectioncompiled in the 1620s. Its general opulence surelycontributed to its survival, and was such that it was longthought to have been the property of Queen Elizabethherself. This myth was replaced in the nineteenthcentury by another, suggesting that it was copied by therecusant Francis Tregian, imprisoned in the Fleet prisonfrom about 1609 until his death in 1619. The recentresearches of Ruby Reid Thompson seem to indicatethat it was the work of a group of professional scribes,using paper of such rare quality as is only otherwisefound in the vicinity of the royal establishments, andwas used for presentation drawings by Inigo Jones. ThisFitzwilliam Virginal Book, thus named after thecollector who donated it to the museum he founded inCambridge, seems to have been intended as a gift for aperson of very high rank who desired a large collectionof the best English keyboard music. There is somereason to think it may have returned to England after aperiod in Holland, in which case a possible recipientmight have been the music-loving daughter of James I,Elizabeth, the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, who livedin exile in The Hague for decades.
Farnaby's works comprise no less than one-sixth ofthe contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, animmense anthology of one of the greatest schools ofkeyboard composition, the English virginalists, namedafter the rather odd Renaissance English term for theharpsichord. These pieces firmly establish Farnaby inthe company of Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Tomkins, andtheir proud place here in their sole significant sourcetells us a great deal about the esteem in which thecomposer was held in the highest circles. It is regrettablethat the sparse historical record makes it impossible toprovide a further context for them.
From its origins in the sixteenth century the termFantasia indicated a sober piece of thematicdevelopment in strict polyphony with no text and nofixed melody or cantus firmus. The virginalists, too,begin their fantasias by developing one or more themesthrough the voices, but add to their contrapuntalworking a final toccata, a closing section of idiomatickeyboard pyrotechnics and polyrhythms, whichcorresponds with the later idea of a fantasia. A lastvestige of this arrangement can be found in the sonatasof Domenico Scarlatti, which almost always begin witha brief imitative section, a sort of bow to the old style oflearned composition, before descending into playfulanarchy.
There is another category of fantasia altogether,represented by three of Farnaby's works recorded here.
They might better be called part-song arrangements, orornamented intabulations of polyphonic vocal works.
Two of the originals remain unidentified, the other isone of Farnaby's madrigals, which he called"canzonets". The four intertwining vocal melodies arefreely altered in favour of lush passage-work whichtakes on a life of its own.Glen Wilson