Saturday, 8 February 2014


“Beauty and folly are old companions.” - Benjamin Franklin

La Folía (Spanish), also folies d’Espagne (French), Follies of Spain (English) or Follia (Italian), is one of the oldest remembered and recorded European musical themes. The theme exists in two versions, referred to as early folia and late folia, the earlier being faster.

Over the course of three centuries, more than 150 composers have used this theme in their works. The first publications of the folia date from the middle of the 17th century, but it is probably much older. Plays of the renaissance theatre in Portugal, including works by Gil Vicente, mention the folia as a dance performed by shepherds or peasants. The Portuguese origin is recorded in the 1577 treatise “De musica libri septem” by Francisco de Salinas.

Jean-Baptiste Lully, along with Philidor l’Aîné in 1672, Arcangelo Corelli in 1700, Marin Marais in 1701, Alessandro Scarlatti in 1710, Antonio Vivaldi in his Opus 1 No. 12 of 1705, Francesco Geminiani in his Concerto Grosso No. 12 (which was, in fact, part of a collection of direct transcriptions of Corelli’s violin sonatas), George Frederick Handel in the Sarabande of his Keyboard Suite in D minor HWV 437 of 1727, and Johann Sebastian Bach in his Peasants’ Cantata of 1742 are considered to highlight this ‘later’ folia repeating theme in a brilliant way.  Antonio Salieri’s 26 variations, produced late in his career, are among his finest works.

In the 19th century, Franz Liszt included a version of the Folia in his Rhapsodie Espagnole, and Ludwig van Beethoven quoted it briefly in the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. La Folia once again regained composers’ interest during the 1930s with Sergei Rachmaninov in his Variations on a theme by Corelli in 1931 and Manuel María Ponce and his Variations on “Spanish Folia” and Fugue for guitar.

The “Early Folia relies in the application of a specific compositional and improvisational method to simple melodies in minor mode. Thus, the essence of the “early Folia” was not a specific theme or a fixed sequence of chords but rather a compositional-improvisational process which could generate these sequences of chords.
The “later Folia” is a standard chord progression (i-V-i-VII / III-VII-[i or VI]-V / i-V-i-VII / III-VII-[i or VI7]-V[4-3sus]-i) and usually features a standard or “stock” melody line, a slow sarabande in triple meter, as its initial theme. This theme generally appears at the start and end of a given “Folia” composition, serving as “bookends” for a set of variations within which both the melodic line and even the meter may vary.

In turn, written variations on the “later Folia” may give way to sections consisting of partial or pure improvisation similar to those frequently encountered in the twelve-bar blues that rose to prominence in the twentieth century.

Here is Arcangelo Corelli’s (17 February 1653 – 8 January 1713) version of the “later folia” for violin and continuo, taking the form of a suite of variations (from the Op. 5 Sonatas). It is a lively and inventive interpretation of this theme. One of Corelli’s famous students, Geminiani, thought so much of the Opus 5 Sonatas that he arranged all the works in that group as Concerti Grossi.

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