9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


From stylus phantasticus to stylo phantastico: Tracing the ‘fantastic’ thread in musical style theory from Kircher to Grassineau

Paul Collins

This paper traces the development of the concept of a ‘fantastic’ style in treatises and lexicographical works of the baroque period, beginning with the encyclopedic tome Musurgia universalis (1650), by the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, in which the style is first described. After a brief consideration of its theoretical antecedents in writings by such theorists as Morley, Praetorius and Mersenne, Kircher’s stylus phantasticus and its place within the Rome-based Jesuit’s broader classification of musical style are discussed. While equally finding expression in vocal composition, as evidenced, for example, by one of five ‘fantastic’ examples in the Musurgia treatise, the stylus phantasticus was understood by Kircher and later theorists alike as being, in essence, an instrumental style. During the eighteenth century, however, lexicographers and theorists such as Janovka, Brossard, Mattheson, Walther and Grassineau, transformed Kircher’s definition in varying degrees. From a concept that had found expression principally in the keyboard fantasia and which focused on the composer’s ingenium in matters contrapuntal, there emerged, particularly in the writings of Mattheson, an understanding of the style in which the performer’s improvisatory ability was especially valued. In re-inventing Kircher’s concept, Mattheson wished the fantastischer Styl to be a vehicle for the spontaneous musical orator, who is exhorted by the Hamburg theorist to please, dazzle and astound his/her listeners. In this new understanding of the fantastic style, the toccata replaced the fantasia as the genre most representative of this, the most ‘unrestrained’ of musical styles.

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Last updated on 21 March 2000 by Yo Tomita