Purcell’s music for viol consort represents a small proportion of his output. This is hardly surprising, since this largely domestic genre was falling out of fashion, and certainly was against the tastes of the monarchs under whom Purcell served. It is, then, predictable that his trio sonatas for two violins and bass, written around the same time were published and widely known, but that his (presumably) viol music, in the form of fantasias and in nomines was, by all appearances, largely unknown during his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Even the trio sonatas represent a rare departure, and after 1683 it seems that Purcell had largely abandoned consort music.

The music for his fantasias, dating from the 1670s or early 1680s, is amongst his most closely worked and intricately constructed music. Stevens (1952) notes ‘The Fantasias never cease to be musically stimulating, and listeners are as much struck by theior remarkable harmonic idiom as performers are alarmed by the independence of their internal rhythms.’

The pieces discussed here, along with their Zimmerman numbers and keys are listed below. Names are as given in the Dart edition, dates (where stated) are as they appear in the primary source. Key signatures are indicated where they do not match the ‘key’ of the piece (for a discussion of some of the relevant issues here, see Howard, 2006)

3 parts Z732 Fantazia No 1 D minor (empty key signature)
Z733 Fantazia No 2 F major
Z734 Fantazia No 3 G minor
4 parts Z735 Fantazia No 4, ‘June ye 10 1680’ G minor
Z736 Fantazia No 5, ‘June ye 11 1680’ B♭ major
Z737 Fantazia No 6, ‘June ye 14 1680’ F major
Z738 Fantazia No 7, ‘June ye 19 1680’ C minor (two flats)
Z739 Fantazia No 8, ‘June ye 19 [amended to 22] 1680’ D minor
Z740 Fantazia No 9, ‘June ye 23 1680’ A minor
Z741 Fantazia No 10, ‘June ye 30 1680’ E minor
Z742 Fantazia No 11, ‘August ye 19 1680’ G minor
Z743 Fantazia No 12, ‘August ye 31 1680’ D minor
Z744 [incomplete fantazia, absent from edition], ‘February 24 1683’ A minor
5 parts Z745 Fantazia upon One Note F major
6 parts Z746 In Nomine G minor
7 parts Z747 In Nomine G minor (one flat)

The Sources

All the surviving fantasias, including the in nomines, are contained in one autograph source located in the British Library (Additional MS 30,930), along with his trio sonatas and a handful of other instrumental pieces (the other half of the source consists of vocal music). Most of the complete fantasias also occur in a closely-related manuscript, now in America (US-NYp Drexel 5061), whilst the three fantazias in three parts may also be found in a further British Library manuscript, Add 33,236, and the Fantazia upon One Note appears in a much later source, Och 620.

In all of these sources, the pieces are in score notation - they could not easily be used for performance. Only one fantasia, the second three-part fantasia, survives in parts (in another British Library manuscript, Add 31345), fuelling speculation that this music was rarely, if ever, played. Evidence that the music might have been played, even if not in its original form is furnished by an eighteenth century source, unattributed and in keyboard score, of the first and third three-part fantasias (Holman, 1998)

The main manuscript, which is in Purcell’s own hand, has many interesting features, the most frequently observed of which is the apparent disorder of the source, including the presence of blank pages interleaved with the music, almost certainly resulting from a combination of space left for future additions and an insensitive rebinding shortly prior to the its acquisition by the British Library. It is clear from headings such as ‘Here begineth the 6, 7 & 8 part Fantazia’s’, which point to at least one piece that never appeared, that Purcell regarded this collection as a work in progress (see Holman, 1995). The source appears to have originated as a collection of loose gatherings, which were bound during the course of its completion (possibly already adding one misordering) and then rebound, with the loss of several probably blank sheets and some curious reorderings, at some point between 1849 and 1878.(Thompson, 1995 and Shay and Thompson, 2001. See the latter, chapter 3 for more detailed descriptions of this family of manuscripts)

The source also contains one incomplete fantasia in 5 parts dated from almost three years after the other dated works (although whether the dates given are dates of compilation, transcription or composition is also a matter for debate).

Another controversy unresolved by these sources is their instrumentation. The ranges of parts are unconventional for viol music, leaving Stevens to regard a violin group (including tenor violin) as the most likely ensemble (Stevens, 1952 - he also argues that viols are not ‘fully equal to the task of bringing out the vital, even dramatic rhythms of Purcell’s compositions’), whilst Dart (1959) suggests a mixed consort of violins, lyra viols and bass viols, accompanied by a basso continuo. Most modern performers and writers (e.g. Holman, 1995) seem, however, to assume or actively argue for a viol consort, although the presence of a second bass part in Add 31345 might lend support to Dart’s continuo accompaniment. Recordings have, in general, favoured a homogenous grouping of instruments, usually a string quartet in earlier and a viol consort in later performances.

Two eighteenth-century sources are described by Holman (1997), one of them laid out in keyboard score. These seem remarkably closely related to the autograph, pointing to a very small circle of musicians being aware of the music.


Alan Howard notes of these pieces, ‘If they were [performed], it must have been on the rarest of occasions and in the most intimate of surroundings, since no surviving account from any contemporary musician so much as mentions their existence.’ (Howard, 2006, p.59) This silence on the subject persists throughout the following centuries. Neither Burney nor Hawkins, both enthusiastic (though qualified) promoters of Purcell’s music appears aware of the works.

One source, Add 33,236, was donated by Vincent Novello to the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1845, with the express hope that they would bring its contents, which includes works by Corelli, Draghi and others, to greater attention - Novello’s annotations to the contents page indicate his awareness that the fantasias remained unpublished and although, as a publisher, he could doubtless have taken the task on himself, he clearly saw the source as significant. The Musical Antiquarian Society had in previous years published Orlando Gibbons’ fantasias in three parts and some of Purcell’s dramatic music, and so probably seemed the most appropriate choice of publisher. Unfortunately, the society lasted only a few years after acquiring the book, never publishing any of its contents before, according to Novello’s wishes, it was eventually passed on to the British Museum in 1887.

In 1849, the then owner of the autograph score, Joseph Warren, published an edition of William Boyce’s eighteenth-century collection of religious music, providing biographies of the composers whose pieces occur in the book in a preface. His Purcell biography includes a substantial (if largely irrelevant) description of the source. He is clearly aware that the fantasias have not previously been published or even discussed, but took no action himself to do more than reproduce four bars of an introduction. Very little is said of the music itself except that the In Nomine in 7 parts is described as “exceedingly curious in its construction”.

It is clearly the British Museum’s acquisition of the manuscripts in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the subsequent exhibition containing them at the British Museum in 1895 that began the rediscovery of this music (Musical Times, 1895, the museum had acquired it some 18 years earlier (Thompson, 1995)). The list of contents of the Museum’s exhibition was compiled by Augustus Hughes-Hughes, William Barclay Squire and F. M. O’Donoghue, and Add 30,930 was certainly on display, with some leaves unbound so that more of the pages could be seen.

Within a year, a Times review, probably by Fuller Maitland indicates that Arnold Dolmetsch had been involved in a performance of the Fantasia ‘Upon One Note’ (Campbell, 19??). Fuller Maitland was Barclay Squire’s friend and brother-in-law, and both, at the time, were friends of Dolmetsch. Maitlan further mentions the fantasias of Add 30,930 in an article in the Musical Times of the same year (Fuller Maitland, 1896) and later in his entry on Purcell in the 1907 edition of Grove (Fuller Maitland, 1907), although it appears that Hubert Parry, whose article on Fantasias appears in the same edition of the dicionary, did not at the time know of Purcell’s contribution to the genre.

In 1915, whilst delivering an illustrated lecture primarily on the Sonatas, Sir Frederick Bridge introduces the fantasias, saying ‘I do not think it is widely known that Purcell followed the prevalent custom and set to work to compose Fancies... I do not think these Fancies have ever been published, but I have had most of them played at various times’(Bridge, 1916). It is around the same time as this that Peter Warlock claims he first started circulating his transcriptions amongst performers (Warlock, 1927), resulting in recordings by the Music Society String Quartet (1925), with Barbirolli playing the cello part, followed a few years later the International String Quartet (1928).

Warlock’s edition with André Mangeot (who had played in the first recordings), was published in 1927 and made the music much more available to musicologists and performers. Eaglefield-Hull hailed the edition as ‘perhaps the most notable achievement in English musical research of the last fifty years, although he too refers to performance in the late 1910s, in this case, for the British Music Society (Eaglefield-Hull, 1927). Certainly, publication of the music increased its profile and consequently its reputation. In an (at the time) unpublished essay from 1931, Grainger calls it “ the most sublimely beautiful many-voiced democratic music known to me, & should become to all string players what Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier is to pianists” (Grainger 1931/1999)

Meanwhile, in Germany, Herbert Just was preparing a rather more scholarly edition for Nagels Musik-Archiv, in two volumes completed in 1930 and 1935 respectively and including the In Nomines. By the time of the publication of Thurston Dart’s edition in 1959, Dart could talk in a related article of Purcell’s ‘famous fantazias’. Composers who have responded to the fantasias explicitly in their own compositions include Britten (String Quartet No. 2), Peter Maxwell Davies (Fantasia on One Note), Oliver Knussen (...Upon One Note) and Elliott Carter (A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia upon One Note’), while others, including George Benjamin, have arranged one or other of them for other forces.

More, perhaps, than for any other music of this period, there has been a strong temptation for modern writers to draw parallels, often anachronistically, between the fantasias and other works, most commmonly with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but in extreme examples, with the works of Schönberg, Tippett, Franck and Mozart (Halbreich in Hespèrion, 1995) or Byrd, Kaminski, Busoni, Schumann and Beethoven (Eaglefield-hull, 1927). Another key aspect of the reception of this set of pieces is that nationalist side of Purcell discourse that has existed without interruption since the composer’s first rise to fame, seen most clearly here: ‘I believe that in time Purcell will be recognised not as the greatest musical genius that England ever possessed, but as the greatest musically-gifted genius of all ages and all nations.’(Eaglefield-Hull, 1927)

This tendancy to counterbalance the uniqueness of the collection by finding some musical comparison also produces a lively discussion of the models for the music, a discussion made all the more open by evidence of Purcell’s knowledge of music spanning more than a hundred years up to his own time (see, for example, Shay, 1995).