Sunday, 5 August 2012

Follies (1)

Akin to the remarkable In Nomine phenomenon that gripped English composers from the early 16th Century on, in 1672 a simple 16-bar tune was published. It was called La Folia, meaning 'madness' or 'folly' and begins:
The tune comes with a standard chord progression:

In the years that followed composer after composer began writing variations on this tune and this chord progression. They are still doing so. None were afraid to bend La Folia to their own needs.

The composer who seems to have really got the ball rolling was Lully whose Les folies d'Espagne for four winds was published in 1672. We get the tune and two variations. It is widely believed that Lully is the man we have to thank for re-jigging a pre-existing snatch of melody (and harmony) and making it into the flexible friend of composers the world over.

Where the absolute monarch of French music led others were bound to follow. So we get a lutenist-composer called Jacques Gallot (c.1625-c.1695) penning his own Les Folies d'Espagne - a theme and nine variations - around much the same time.  Shortly after the tune hopped across the border to the land after which it was named and Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) wrote his Folias, a theme and three variations for guitar. Another Spaniard was hot on his heels, one Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz (dates uncertain) whose Folias for written for solo harp. Bearing the tune to England and Germany was one Michel Farinelli (dates uncertain), an Italian violinist who came to London and published Faronell's Division on a Ground with 11 variations in 1684. This prompted another spike in its popularity.

As the theme spread the French helped keep up the momentum with Lully pupil Marin Marais (1656-1728) composing a large-scale Les folies d'Espagne, a theme with 31 variations. Composers were getting ambitious. Jean-Henry D'Anglebert (1629-1691) wrote 22 variations for his Les folies d'Espagne for harpsichord. The Spaniards and the Italians kept the momentum going too, with Francisco Guerau (1649-1722) writing his Doze diferencias de Folías for guitar in 1694 and Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) writing his Partite diverse di Follia (theme and 14 variations) shortly after.

And talking of Italians...the most influential of all composers of the time, the genius Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) ended his landmark set of 12 Violin Sonatas, Op.5 of 1700 with the Violin Sonata in D minor, La Follia - a technical-demanding theme and 23 variations that became massively popular. (Other composers went on to make arrangements of it, including Geminiani).  

The Italians went Folia-mad as a result. Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745) wrote an immediate response with his Concerto di sonate a violino, violincello, e cembalo Op 4 no. 12 'Follia' of 1701. Soon the other big men of Italian Baroque music were responding too, including Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose very first published set of pieces ended with a Trio sonata for two violins and basso continuo (Variations on "La Folia"), Op.1/12 RV63 whose roots in the Corelli piece are clear for all to hear. Another big name, Antonio Scarlatti (1660-1725), wrote his 29 Variazioni su "La Follia" for harpsichord in 1723. Other Italians include Giovanni Reali (c.1681-1751), whose La follia dates from 1709, and Paolo Benedetto Bellinzani (1690-1757), whose Sonata in D minor for treble recorder and basso continuo, Op.3/12 ends with a set of variations on the theme. 

The Spanish and German composers kept them coming too, including Antonio Martín y Coll's Diferencias sobre las folias and the Sonate pour violon et basse continue Opus 9, nr. 12 'La Follia'  by the German Henrico Albicastro (c.1660-1730). 

Even Johann Sebastian Bach was not immune from La Folia. It makes its appearance in the course of the delightful Peasant Cantata BWV212, sounding out very clearly at the start of the soprano aria Unser trefflicher, Lieber Kammerherr (6.30 into the linked video). The singer's melody is Bach's own. 

The Baroque was an age full of Folias. With the passing of that musical age did the world cure itself of La Folia? The answer to that question will do for another post.

P.S. For more on this fascinating subject please see this wonderful website:

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