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  • The Stylus Phantasticus and Free Keyboard Music of the North German Baroque
  • Leon W. Couch III
The Stylus Phantasticus and Free Keyboard Music of the North German Baroque. By Paul Collins. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. [xv, 229 p. ISBN 0-7546-3416-7. $89.95.] Music examples, index, bibliography.

As interest in the music of Dietrich Buxtehude and his north German contemporaries intensifies, one often hears the term stylus phantasticus used routinely by scholars and performers of German baroque music. Today, the term generally gives performers license to play wildly—with an unpredictable rubato and an emphasis on the musically bizarre. Treatises by Johann Mattheson certainly justify a free approach to the performance practice of specific genres and venues, such as the toccata. A resourceful reader of historical treatises, however, quickly finds a bewildering set of definitions, meanings, and associations for the stylus phantasticus. For Athanasius Kircher, for instance, the term clearly applies to a composer's imaginative approach to abstract counterpoint, such as in canons and ricercare.

Baroque theorists did not completely distinguish between the concepts of genre, venue, style, musical effect, and the musical act (composition or performance). Intriguing but vague associations of rhetoric, oratory, and the affections with the stylus fantasticus abound as well. Kircher, Mattheson, and several other baroque theorists moved fluidly between such concepts in their writings about the stylus phantasticus, making consensus on the scope and meaning of the term difficult.

Buttressed with a strong command of historical treatises and modern scholarship, Paul Collins identifies, untangles, and dissects this mishmash, author by author. Drawing upon other scholarship such as Kerala Snyder's Dietrich Buxtehude: Organist in Lubeck (New York: Schirmer Books, 1987), pp. 248–56, Collins proposes a historical evolution of the term from Kircher's ingenious counterpoint to Mattheson's expressive passages, that is, from admirable abstraction to captivating performances. Collins places Buxtehude's music somewhere between these extremes. In his analysis of late seventeenth-century music, however, Collins clearly adopts the modern usage (perhaps like Mattheson's) when evaluating the repertory in the final chapter.

The timely release of Collins's publication allows scholars to augment, reconsider, and promulgate his ideas before the upcoming Buxtehude celebration year in 2007. And, this vital term, stylus phantasticus, certainly deserves study. Through a narrow focus on the term, Collins provides a thorough musicological study supplemented with numerous examples from seventeenth-century Italian and German keyboard literature.

Although David Yearsley (quoted on the book jacket) recommends Collins's book "for students, enthusiasts, and scholars," such a focused scholarly endeavor seems clearly intended for musicologists, not performers or amateurs. Chapter 1, for instance, contains only twenty-eight pages of especially dense text but boasts 229 endnotes. Several endnotes are mere citations or only measure numbers to cited passages, but many include significant points and some discussion, which might have been better incorporated into the main text. I [End Page 342] spent as much time in the endnotes as in the chapters themselves; this, at the very least, suggests that footnotes would have been more convenient to a responsible reader. This sort of proportion continues throughout the book: 161 pages of text hardly balance the whopping sixty-three pages of endnotes and bibliography.

Much of this effect may result from the adaptation of a scholarly dissertation to a book. His master's thesis (1997) exhibits much in common, and I suspect Collins's dissertation (2001) is very similar. (I was unable to compare the dissertation to the book, because access to the dissertation is blocked at Northern University of Ireland, Maynooth; the only copies exist there and at the Library of Congress.) I should mention in passing that the editing is meticulous throughout, although a few items, such as Christoph Bernhard's treatises and Claudio Monteverdi's 1638 publication Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, are missing from the bibliography. The quality of the illustrations and music examples are equally excellent.

Although the writing becomes less dense during the last two chapters, the opening chapters will be formidable to those unfamiliar with the primary sources, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dictionaries and music-theory treatises. Musicologists and many music theorists, however, will find Collins's discussion of familiar topics...


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