Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as the new, centralized power of the absolute state was established in most European nations, royal courts all over Europe became the very heart of cultural and artistic life in their respective countries. They assembled an elite of aristocratic courtiers who were expected to master the principles of poetry, dance and vocal and instrumental music, as much as they were supposed to follow a strict and complex etiquette in all aspects of daily social interaction, adopt a luxurious and ever-changing fashion code, or sustain a refined conversation with a lady.
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as the new, centralized power of the absolute state was established in most European nations, royal courts all over Europe became the very heart of cultural and artistic life in their respective countries. They assembled an elite of aristocratic courtiers who were expected to master the principles of poetry, dance and vocal and instrumental music, as much as they were supposed to follow a strict and complex etiquette in all aspects of daily social interaction, adopt a luxurious and ever-changing fashion code, or sustain a refined conversation with a lady. The traditions of popular culture inherited from the previous centuries were not necessarily rejected here as a whole, but they were subject to a process of intense transformation, losing their most obvious rural connotations and adopting new, elaborate rules that required a lengthy learning process only available to the children of the nobility from a very early age. International, cosmopolitan models circulated within this network of the aristocratic courts in the various countries, following the direct example of whichever court was considered the most fashionable at each particular time: that of the Kings of England in the early fifteenth century, at the peak of their military and political power in the continent; that of the Dukes of Burgundy immediately afterwards, when they were by far the wealthiest sovereigns of Europe; that of the Kings of France, in the aftermath of their victory over the Burgundians; those of the wealthiest Italian states at the turn of the sixteenth century when the artistic models of Renaissance Italy had become irresistible. But each specific court–some more than others, of course–also kept strong ties with its own local cultural traditions, even if these were in the process transformed to a more or less radical extent in the general pursuit of an unmistakable image of aristocratic distinction.
Renaissance courtly dances are amongst the most obvious products of this phenomenon. Most of them had originally developed as rural dances, simple and unpretentious in their musical and choreographic nature, allowing for ample use of improvisation in the steps as well as in the musical support. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, as they were brought into the new context of the palaces of the nobility, they tended to become standardized, technically more elaborate, devoid of any signs of peasant-like coarseness, adapted to the refined taste of their new practitioners and spectators, at the hands of professional dance masters, composers and virtuosi. Some dances managed to remain somewhat closer to their original models, others were completely reprocessed into something quite different, and by the late seventeenth century a few of them had even ended up being adopted within the highly cosmopolitan Baroque pattern of the instrumental suite and sonata.
The case of the Folia can be most likely placed in this latter category. It was originally a traditional dance of Portuguese peasants, and as such is repeatedly mentioned in the works of Portugal’s most distinguished Renaissance playwright, Gil Vicente, usually associated with rural characters, such as peasants and shepherds who would celebrate a happy event with loud singing and energetic dancing (“cantadme por vida vuestra en portuguesa folia la causa de su alegría”, or “sing me, for your life, in a Portuguese fFolia the reason for your happiness”). This origin is again confirmed by the Spanish theorist Francisco de Salinas in his famous 1577 treatise De musica libri septem (“ut ostenditur in vulgaribus quas Lusitani Follias vocant”, or “as shown in the popular songs which the Portuguese call folias”). Gian Battista Venturino, the secretary to the papal legate, Cardinal Alessandrino, who visited Portugal in the early 1570s gives us a more detailed description: “La follia, era di otto huomini vestiti alla Portughesi, che con cimbalo et cifilo accordati insieme, battendo con sonaglie à piedi, festeggiando intorno à un tamburo cantando in lor lingua versi d’allegrezza…”, or “The Folia consisted of eight men dressed in the Portuguese fashion who, with cymbals and tambourines tuned alike, shaking rattles tied to their feet, celebrated around a drum, singing in their language verses of joy…”.
The most colourful portrait of the original Folia is given, nevertheless, by Sebastián Covarrubias in his Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana (Madrid, 1611): “Folia, es una cierta dança Portuguesa, de mucho ruido, porque ultra de ir muchas figuras a pie con sonajas y otros instrumentos, […] y es tan grande el ruido, y el son tan apresurado, que parecen estar los unos y los otros fuera de juyzio. Y assí le dieron a la dança el nombre de folia, siendo de la palabra Toscana, folle, que vale vano, loco, sin seso, que tiene la cabeça vana” [“Folia is a certain Portuguese dance, very noisy, because it involves many persons on foot, with rattles and other instruments, …and the noise is such, and the sound is so hasty, that they all look as if they were out of their minds: and thus the dance was given its name, folia, which comes from the Tuscan word folle, which means mindless, crazy, senseless, empty-headed”].
By the early sixteenth century the bass line of the Folia was already present in a number of polyphonic pieces collected in the Cancionero del Palacio, as a ground over which various contrasting melodic lines could be built, such as those of the songs “Rodrigo Martínez”, “Adorámoste Señor” or “De la vida deste mundo” (the latter is the earliest example recorded in the present album). In 1553 Diego Ortíz used it in his Trattado de glosas as one of the ostinati bass lines on which he composed several Recercadas for viola de gamba with harpsichord accompaniment, and presented it in its basic, two-part sequence (A-E-A-G-C-G-A-E, followed by A-E-A-G-C-G-A-E-A). With slight alterations, this is also the ground for Antonio de Cabezón’s “Pavana con su glosa”, published in 1557 in Venegas de Henestrosa’s keyboard anthology entitled Libro de Cifra Nueva. Similar chord progressions, even when their actual sequence does not entirely coincide with this pattern, or when there is a greater rhythmic and formal freedom in the ultimate structure of the piece, appear in numerous instrumental works of sixteenth-century Spanish music, including various compositions in Alonso Mudarra’s 1546 Tres Libros de Música en Cifra de Vihuela.
Throughout the seventeenth and well into the first half of the eighteenth century the Folia remained a staple of the Iberian vocal and instrumental repertoire. The best musicians who wrote for the Spanish five-course Baroque guitar (or simply “Spanish guitar,” as it was known all over Europe), such as Gaspar Sanz or Santiago de Murcia, included it often in their collections for this instrument, such as Sanz’ 1674 Instrucción de Guitarra española, or Murcia’s early-eighteenth century manuscript anthology which now corresponds to the so-called Codex Saldívar No. 4. Even the greatest of all Peninsular keyboard composers of the late seventeenth century, the Catalan Joan Cabanilles (1644-1712), did not feel that it would be unworthy of his talent to cultivate the genre, side by side with his majestic contrapuntal tientos. Many of these composers were known in their lifetime not only for their instrumental virtuosity but also for their ability to apply it to lengthy improvisations on well-known musical themes. In their settings of variations on the Folia one cannot not avoid the feeling that these are published as mere examples of their improvisatory talent, and that the composers themselves would most likely change a great deal of the written musical text every time they performed it, in a much more significant way than they would dare to do when performing a stricter genre of musical composition.
On the other hand, although the style of composition in these pieces is certainly not “popular”, in the proper sense of the word, but rather the work of a skilled virtuoso and an academically trained composer, the rhythmic strength of the music suggests that this is still a repertoire intended for an upper-class elite but nevertheless much closer to its remote popular roots than would be the case of the more sophisticated instrumental genres, such as the Tiento or the Fantasia. It is also fascinating to observe the fact that Iberian and Latin-American musical genres of this period that contain a strong cross-cultural component, like the Afro-Brazilian Cumbés of the several Portugal guitar collections of the early eighteenth century, often present chordal sequences that are very similar to those of the Folia, even when they combine them with non-European rhythmic and melodic patterns. That is the case of an Andean Cachua extracted from the collection of Amerindian songs and dances assembled in the mid-eighteenth century by the Peruvian Bishop Baltazar Martínez Compañon, which corresponds to a true reprocessing of the Iberian original model at the hands of Amerindian musicians.
Outside of the Iberian Peninsula the basic harmonic pattern of the Folia can be traced as far back as to some of the Frottole of the early sixteenth-century musical prints in Northern Italy, and sets of instrumental variations on a clear statement of the same bass line can be found in the works of many sixteenth-century Italian masters. In Italy, however, this bass was not always identified as la Folia, and was often known by other titles, such as “Fedele”, “Cara Cosa”, “Pavaniglia” or “La Gamba”. In fact, one of the earliest Italian known examples, included in 1564 by the Chapelmaster of the Verona Cathedral, Vincenzo Ruffo ( 1587), in his Capricci in Musica, was entitled “La Gamba in Basso, e Soprano.” In the seventeenth century several influential Italian composers left us sets of Folia variations: the lutenist Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638) in his Intavolatura di Liuto (Bologna, 1623), for chitarrone; yet another lutenist, Andrea Falconieri (1585/6-1656), in his Il Primo Libro di Canzone (Naples, 1650) for two violins and continuo; the organist Bernardo Storace in his Selva di Varie compositioni (Venice, 1664), for keyboard; the guitarist Francesco Corbetta (1681), in his La Guitarre Royale (Paris, 1671), for his own instrument.
Corbetta seems to be one of the first authors to superimpose to the traditional bass of the Folia the characteristic treble melody in triple meter, with a dotted second beat in each measure, that was to become associated with the genre from the late seventeenth century on. In fact, Gaspar Sanz’ 1674 version was basically an adaptation of Corbetta’s setting, which the Spanish master must have acquired shortly after its publication in Paris. This same combination of upper melody and harmonic bass circulated widely all over Europe and became a favourite object for variations, first in France itself, where it was employed by Lully and Marais, then in Germany, the Netherlands and England, where the publisher John Playford (1623-1687/88) included a set of Folia variations for the violin in his instrumental collection The Division Viol (London, 1685), under the title “Faronell’s Division”, which seems to have been traditionally associated with the Folia in that country. At the same time, the most commercially successful French and Italian dance treatises of the period, such as those by Feuillet (1700) and by Lambranzi (1716), spread the tune and the basic steps of this “Folie d’Espagne” through all the European market.
With the development of the virtuosic repertoire for the violin at the turn of the century it was only natural that the Folia should be included in it. In 1700 the great Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) used it as the basis for a series of exceedingly virtuosic variations with which he concluded his most influential collection of solo sonatas for violin and continuo, the famous Op. 5, the contents of which are known to have circulated in manuscript for more than a decade prior to this printing. In 1704 one of the most representative composers of violin music of the German and Dutch school, Henricus Albicastro, an artistic pseudonym of Johann Heinrich von Weissenburg (ca. 1660-ca. 1730), published a sonata “La Follia”, which displays a clear Corellian influence in its virtuosic writing. And it was not by accident that a year later, in 1705, the young Antonio Vivaldi ( – ) also chose to conclude a decisive publication in which he placed the highest hopes for the future of his artistic career, his Op. 1 collection of trio-sonatas, with yet another magnificent set of Folia variations.
The old Portuguese peasant dance had come a long way. To the very end of the Baroque period it would remain one of the strongest unifying traits of European instrumental music, a well-known basis upon which musicians from all nations could improvise together without any barrier of language or of musical tradition, and a successful source of inspiration for any composer who wished to impress the European music community at large with his skills. On the contrary, Classicism, in its search for larger formal structures in music, was not so interested in ostinato basses, but still the Folia was yet to be occasionally rediscovered by the Romantics, at the hands of such masters as Liszt or Rachmaninov.
RUI VIEIRA NERY
University of Évora