The tune known as 'La Folia' has fascinated many composers since the seventeenth century. Portuguese in origin, the word means 'mad' or 'empty-headed' and until the 1670s it indicated a fast and noisy dance in which the participants seemed to be 'out of their minds'. By the end of the century a new, slower form had developed which threw the accent from the first beat on to the second every other bar and slightly adjusted the harmonic structure to form the perfect symmetry which inspired Corelli to use it in the twelfth of his Violin Sonatas, Op 5. That famous work further inspired Vivaldi, C P E Bach, Alessandro Scarlatti and other composers to write variations on 'La Folia'—including even Rachmaninov (though his 'Variations on a theme of Corelli' seem to indicate that he thought the tune was by that composer).
This CD assembles 'La Folia'-inspired works by six composers, starting with the original Corelli Sonata and ending with Geminiani's orchestral arrangement of it. The C P E Bach and Scarlatti works are for solo keyboard. The six pieces are all taken from a series of earlier Hyperion CDs individually devoted to the respective composers.
The word ‘folia’ (or ‘follia’) is Portuguese in origin and refers to a dance, or musical framework in three-time, which originated in the late-fifteenth century. The word itself means ‘mad’ or ‘empty-headed’ and up until the 1670s indicated a very fast and noisy dance in which the participants seemed to be literally ‘out of their minds’. Towards the end of the seventeenth century a new, slower form was developed which threw the accent from the first beat on to the second every other bar, and slightly adjusted the harmonic structure to form the perfect symmetry used by Corelli and Vivaldi. The earliest example of this form of ‘La Folia’ is an Air des hautbois by Lully dating from 1672, but it was Corelli’s use of it as the twelfth and last sonata of his Opus 5 that inspired so many further sets of variations from Vivaldi and others. Other composers who used the tune include Bach (in the ‘Peasant Cantata’) and, later, Grétry, Cherubini, Liszt (in the Rapsodie espagnole) and Carl Nielsen (in his opera Maskarade). It was used by Beethoven too in his fifth symphony where it is quoted in the harmony towards the end of the slow movement—a fact which apparently escaped musicological detection until 1994 when it was recognized by an Open University student, Lucy Hayward-Warburton (to the astonishment of her tutor). The ‘theme of Corelli’ upon which Sergei Rachmaninov based his piano Variations Opus 42 is in fact ‘La Folia’ too. Rachmaninov apparently believed the tune to have been written by his Italian predecessor.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) was one of the most sought-after violin teachers in Italy and his pupils included Castrucci, Gasparini, Geminiani, Bonporti and Locatelli. His set of twelve Violin Sonatas, Op 5, published in 1700 and dedicated to the Electress Sophia of Brandenburg, was a landmark in the history of violin playing. Over forty further editions of it appeared during the eighteenth century. Francesco Geminiani even produced a successful arrangement of the Sonatas as concerti grossi (see below). The most famous Sonata of the set was No 12, recorded here. Cast as a single movement in the form of a chaconne, it is almost too well known to invite comment, but mention should be made of Corelli’s unprecedented instinct for the overall balance of the variations; he always judges exactly when to succeed fast with slow, hectic with calm. And lest the role of the accompanist be forgotten, the Sonata ends with a sequence of dazzling semiquavers for the basso continuo. Although the famous ‘La Folia’ tune had appeared in dozens of arrangements during the seventeeth century this was its first taste of the exalted world of the sonata.
The Parisian Marin Marais’s (1656–1728) Folies d’Espagne appeared in his second book of Pièces de Viole. Since the preparation and engraving of that volume took some time, it was long in coming to press, which it eventually did in 1701, the year after Corelli’s Opus 5 was published. It seems probable, therefore, that Marais used the tune first. Perhaps he got the idea from Lully (see above) with whom he was closely associated at the French Court. Instead of Corelli’s twenty-three variations Marais has thirty-two, but there is a similar integration of the bass part with the solo, and full use is made of the viol’s superior chordal possibilities. Marais must have known that the original dance was Iberian in origin (hence his title) and on more than one occasion he imbues variations with Hispanic flair, hinting occasionally at the strumming of guitars.
The reputation of Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) rests mainly on his vocal music, of which he wrote an enormous quantity—operas (nearly seventy), oratorios and hundreds of cantatas. But, like his more famous son Domenico, he also wrote music for keyboard including two sets of variations on ‘La Folia’. The first was written in 1715. The later version, recorded here, has a greater number of variations—in fact thirty in all, the same number as Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations. Like that work, it finishes with a repetition of its opening statement.
The Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was one of several composers who emulated Corelli. A comparison of his single-movement ‘Folia’ sonata (published as Op 1 No 12 in 1705) with the older master’s reveals many similarities, especially in the choice of virtuosic figurations. Naturally, Vivaldi takes advantage of the extra violin to engage in exciting imitative play.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian and his first wife, Maria Barbara. He was highly revered as a keyboard player and theorist in his lifetime and held important positions in Berlin (for Frederick the Great) and Hamburg. The most prolific of Bach’s sons, he wrote a prodigious amount of keyboard music, much of it for the clavichord. His harpsichord variations on ‘La Folia’, written in 1776, are alternately expressive and virtuosic and typical of his highly individual, not to say eccentric, style.
The reputation of Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762) has always been overshadowed by those of Corelli (of whom he was a pupil), Vivaldi and Handel, but he was one of the finest violinists of his time and wrote much worthwhile and original music. He lived most of his life in London where he arrived in 1714 (though he ended his days, and is buried, in Dublin). In 1726/7 Geminiani published two sets of concerti grossi arranged from Corelli’s Opus 5, which of course included ‘La Folia’. In Geminiani’s setting Corelli’s virtuoso violin part is mostly unchanged, but a second solo violin part is ingeniously added and the whole work is shaped by the contrast between tutti and solo.
Tim Crawford © 1987
Other albums in this series