top of page
Ferrabosco Fantasias - Stylistic Observations

Bruce Bellingham


The four-part fantasias of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger (c.1575-1628) stand both at the climax of Renaissance polyphony and at the turning point to Baroque tonal planning. They are models of structural design as well as outstanding vehicles for performing Viol Consorts - and have been recognised as such since their origins in the court of James I and his son Henry, Prince of Wales. Their appearance in so many manuscripts, usually in virtually complete series of 22 or 23 pieces, attests to their 17th-century popularity and the present-day admiration of their musical substance.


Over the years that I have studied and played these works, I have made the observation to many other Viol players that the music falls well under the hand, that they are rewarding to players as well as to listeners - somewhat the way that Haydn quartets satisfy more recent players and audiences.


The following materials were developed in various stages:

  • First, analyses of all the four-part fantasias of Ferrabosco II were carried out in preparation for the complete Musica Britannica vol. 62 edition published by Stainer & Bell in 1992 as score and associated String Parts (H350).

  • Further revisions occurred when musical sight examples were added in preparation for a CD recording of the complete set of fantasias by the New England Chapter of the VdGSA as a celebration of its 25th anniversary in 2002. (Thanks to all the players who agreed to have their music borrowed in excerpts)

  • Finally, in preparation for this project of making all the analyses available on a website, short excerpts were selected from the CD recording in order that each of the musical sight examples would have an audible sample. Each sample is accessible by clicking directly on the desired audio format. [Audio samples currently unavailable. Coming soon!]

Thanks to Peter and Linda Payzant for their sage advice and technical expertise in designing and creating these pages.

Author's biographical notes

Bruce Bellingham retired from the University of Connecticut in 2003, after teaching there for 29 years. Previously, he taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and was a teaching fellow at his Alma Mater, the University of Toronto. He also led the Collegium Musicum early-music ensembles in Rochester and U of CT, and was Chair of the Collegium Musicum Committee for the American Musicological Society in the mid-1970s. He was Vice-President and President of the Viola da Gamba Society of America from 1975 to 1978. Besides editing the Ferrabosco Four-Part Fantasias with Andrew Ashbee, he previously edited bicinia publications for A-R Editions and Bärenreiter Verlag.


Bruce played the Double Bass for over 50 years in Jazz, Theater, Dance, Chamber, Early-Music and Symphony orchestras, and played all sizes of Viola da Gamba, from Treble to Violone. He passed away in January, 2010.

Key to some of the terms used in the analyses

Antecedent - consequent: very often a practice of using one phrase to be answered by another.


Augmentation: a musical figure that is played with longer note-values and yet is still recognizable.


Cantus Firmus (CF): presents a melody in one voice (traditionally Tenor in the Renaissance) against which other voices are composed in counterpoint. See Fantasias 9, 14.


Canzona: an Italian term originally derived from French 'Chanson', but in 16th c. came to be used for a composition intended for instruments; often has distinctive rhythmic characteristics, as marked in the analyses of many Ferrabosco fantasias.


Canzonetta: a lighter madrigal texture, often with a characteristic rhythmic pattern such as Fantasia 7.


Chromatic: moving by semitone; usually this means melodically, but such is rare in Ferrabosco. Rather, he moves to more remote harmonic areas by use of Musica Ficta mi/fa relations.


Cross-relation: a close appearance of two notes from two different hexachords, for example Bb (from the F hexachord) and B natural (from the G hexachord), causing a modal 'clash'. See fantasia 12.


Diatonic: scalar or stepwise motion.


Diminution: a musical figure that is played with shorter note-values and yet is still recognizable.


Duo: another Ferrabosco trait, using two distinctive figures in counterpoint for a passage.


"Expressive": this may appear to be a subjective opinion, but a glance at Fantasia 1, m.28 to m.30 can serve to illustrate the change from the Perfect 4th Eb / Ab to the altered diminished 4th e nat / Ab (marked as o4th).


Fauxbourdon: a texture usually associated with the earlier Renaissance (Dufay), a passage of parallel 6/3 chords in first inversion; see Fantasia 15, m.32, where the upper parts move in parallel 6/4 chords.


Hexachord: six notes, traditionally associated with solmization, that form the basis of modal scales, and eventually used as the basis of instrumental compositions on ut,re,mi,fa,sol,la.


Homophony: chordal motion, where all the parts move in the same rhythm. See fantasia 16.


Madrigal: a vocal composition, originally Italian but imported into England in late 16th c..


Modes: in traditional Medieval and Renaissance music (carrying over somewhat into the Baroque), the modal orders are set up as diatonic steps on each note of the standard scale.


Ferrabosco uses the following modes in these fantasias:

Dorian on d (d-e-f-g-a-b) - which in Ferrabosco is usually transposed to a sequence beginning on G, with an added B flat - see fantasias 2,3,4.

Aeolian on a (a-b-c-d-e-f) - see fantasias 5,6,7.

Lydian on F with an added B flat - see fantasias 1,8,9,12,17,18.

Mixolydian on G (g-a-b-c-d-e) - see fantasias 15,16,19,21.


Monothematic: usually associated with a ricercar type of composition, in which one thematic figure is exploited throughout.


Musica Ficta: traditional modal device of using pitches that are outside of the central hexachords on C (c-d-e-f-g-a), F (f-g-a-b flat-c-d) and G (g-a-b natural-c-d-e). Ferrabosco uses the mi/fa Semitone to reach remote harmonic areas.


Passing cadences: used by many Renaissance and Baroque composers to shape phrases by employing cadential formulas, sometimes without completing the progression. The formulas usually have the Tenor part move downwards by step, the Alto or Soprano move upwards by semitone, and the Bass leap downwards a fifth or upwards a fourth. A deceptive cadence can prepare for the progression as above, but the Bass deflects usually to the 6th degree. In the analyses, letters are used to represent a chord on the 5th degree (called 'Dominant' in modern terms: (v) if minor or (V) if major; likewise (IV) represents a chord on the 4th degree (called "Subdominant"). These are the two strongest locations in the modal and tonal scales, other than (I) "Tonic". Ferrabosco has a trait of eliding some cadences by deflecting away from an expected arrival toward a related point a 3rd away. For example, see Fantasia 1, m.12g/Bb or m.20Db/bb.


Perfect: a cadence that progresses from V to I (dominant to tonic).


Plagal: a cadence that progresses from IV to I (subdominant to tonic). See fantasia 13.


Quilt canzona: a special type of canzona with many sections of different motives and textures. See fantasia 14.


Retrograde: a musical figure that is played backwards and yet is still recognizable.


Ricercar: an instrumental composition, usually more thorough in its imitative or polyphonic treatment than a Canzona. In the Renaissance, the Ricercar derived from the vocal motet.


Stretto: imitative entries that pile up closer to each other, thus producing excitement, climax.


Una nota sopra 'la' semper est canendum 'fa': In modal music with hexachords, a conventional rule that usually requires that "one note above 'la' is always sung as 'fa' ". That is, the note above the 6th degree is a semitone. E.g., in d Dorian the notes are d-e-f-g-a-bb (and not b natural). See fantasia 15 for a more complex shift to eb at m.16.


Villanella: an Italian technique of composing in three voices, with the upper two often in parallel motion against a supporting lower voice.

Stylistic elements

For each fantasia, numbering follows that of the main source for Musica Britannica vol.62, which is London, British Museum, Madrigal Society Mss.G.37-42, a set of partbooks assumed to have been compiled for use in the court of James I and his elder son, Henry, Prince of Wales. The parenthetical numberings are those used by Ernst Meyer in his pioneering doctoral study and by Gordon Dodd for the VdGS Thematic Index.


I hope that the analytical charts are clear and helpful for consorts who wish to perform these great fantasias with an understanding of their structure and motivic generation. Alfonso's compositional methods can be observed in many ways, ranging from monothematic designs to his common pattern of developing two sections from the motivic materials, some of which are interrelated. He employs the Renaissance conventions of ricercar, canzona (fantasias 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 13, 15, 19, 20) or "quilt canzona" (fantasia 14), occasionally madrigal (fantasia 16), villanella (fantasias 3, 5, 8, 11, 14, 16, 17, 21), canzonetta (fantasia 7), duos (fantasias 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 12, 15, 17) and cantus firmus (fantasias 14, 16). He seems to combine melodic and rhythmic elements of the Italian canzona with the longer-arching polyphonic lines of the ricercar. Rarely does he utilize features of the madrigal style that appears in works of many contemporaries. Rather, he continued more in the tradition of William Byrd, with strongly-profiled motives masterfully exploited and shaped with harmonic excursions and arrivals—an influence which was maintained especially by John Jenkins. Ferrabosco has an especially fluid control of the melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic elements of his materials, all of which provide musical enjoyment to the individual player and the consort as well as they discover the derivations and transformations of the initial motives. He was evidently a master of thematic transformation, with some pieces (fantasias 11, 13, 19, 20) displaying his brilliant control of the monothematic ricercar, moving into distant harmonic areas beyond the scope of other composers of his day. The climax of his achievement appears with the last fantasia, in two sections: a Hexachord fantasia, where the six-note cantus firmus motive in the Treble ascends chromatically from C to G and in the second section returns chromatically to C. As in all of his fantasias, freely-manipulated counterpoints produce a smooth texture that belies its intricacy. This is true chamber music of virtuoso quality, both for the composer and for the performers.


Alfonso's use of traditional musica ficta devices transcends conventions and creates a very modern exploitation of chromatic alterations. One of the characteristics of many Renaissance composers is also a mainstay of his: the use of cadential figures in order to shape phrases and longer sections. These are marked in the analyses with the number marking of the measure and then the tonal area arrived at or passed through—for example, in Fantasia 1: 5F 10F 10d and so on. The more principal cadences define full sections and are marked accordingly. By observing the various cadence structures, players can bring out the dissonant tensions and consonant releases by using bow strokes to shape the phrases into a more expressive performance.


Finally, I have thought it useful to provide a summary for each fantasia, and in places suggest some possible means of articulation and bowing so as to bring out the particular character of a phrase.


Please Note: In MB 62, the scores of the Hexachord Fantasia presented here as Fantasia 22, part 1 and part 2, are not included, even though there are parts provided in the associated String Parts edition (H350) published by Stainer & Bell. The scores are presented for comparison with the five-part versions in MB 81, no 1a and 1b.

Suggested further reading

Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger: Four-Part Fantasias for Viols, ed. Andrew Ashbee and Bruce Bellingham, Musica Britannica vol. 62 (London, 1992).


Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger: Consort Music of Five and Six Parts, ed. Christopher Field and David Pinto, Musica Britannica vol. 81 (London, 2003).


Bruce Bellingham, "The Musical Circle of Anthony Wood in Oxford during the Commonwealth and Restoration", Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, vol.XIX (1982), pp.6-70.


Bruce Bellingham, "Alfonso Ferrabosco II: the art of the fantasia" in Chelys, The Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society, vol. 26 (1988), pp.1-24.


Bruce Bellingham, "Convention and Transformation in Ferrabosco's Four-Part Fantasias" in John Jenkins and his Time: Studies in English Consort Music, ed. Andrew Ashbee and Peter Holman (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 111-135.


Bruce Bellingham, "Harmonic excursions in the English Early-17th-century Four-Part Fantasias of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger" in Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, vol.XLI (2004), pp.36-65.


Andrew Ashbee: The Harmonious Musick of John Jenkins; Volume One : The Fantasias for Viols. (Exeter, Toccata Press, 1992). See especially Chapter Two: "The English Consort Fantasia before Jenkins".


Gordon Dodd, "Alfonso Ferrabosco II - The Art of the Fantasy", Chelys 7 (1977), pp.47-53.

Gordon Dodd, Thematic Index of Music for Viols, [London] Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain (1980-7).


Christopher D. S. Field: "Jenkins and the Cosmography of Harmony", in John Jenkins and his Time; Studies in English Consort Music, ed. Andrew Ashbee and Peter Holman (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.1-74.


Ernst Hermann Meyer, Die mehrstimmige Spielmusik des 17. Jahrhunderts in Nord- und Mitteleuropa (Kassel, Bärenreiter, 1934).


Ernst Hermann Meyer, English Chamber Music (1946), revised as Early English Chamber Music (London, Laurence and Wishart, 1982).


Oliver Neighbour: The Consort and Keyboard Music of William Byrd (London, Faber and Faber, 1978).


Raymond Vaught, "The Fancies of Alfonso Ferrabosco II", PhD dissertation, Stanford University (California, 1958).

bottom of page