’Tis madness. Truly. To the Portuguese, who originated this musical form in the late 15th century, La Folia (Foh-LEE-ah) was music for singing and dancing, and the singing and dancing were often so riotous that the participants appeared “empty-headed.” The Folia was a 16-bar melodic and harmonic pattern, sometimes with a short coda, repeated as often as desired. The result? A set of variations, and not unlike the 12-bar-blues pattern that serves as a framework over which musicians improvise.
The Folia was popular in Spain, and later in Italy. But when it migrated to France and England in the 16th century, it became more refined, and throughout the Baroque Period it was a popular form. The Folia pattern—almost always in D Minor—appears in the works of J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, and, most famously, as La Folia, the 12th and last movement in Corelli’s Violin Sonate, Op. 5.
The form continued to fascinate throughout the next centuries. Liszt incorporates it in Rhapsodie Espagnole. Rachmaninoff pays his respects in Variations on a Theme of Corelli. And Manuel Ponce keeps the original relationship to the guitar in his Variations and Fugue on ‘La Folia.’ Maybe there’s a bit of “madness” in all of us!
The Scarlattis were almost a set of variations in themselves. No surprise that musical talent runs in families. There were generations of Bachs, Beethovens, and Mozarts. And in the late 17th and early 18th century there were countless Scarlattis singing, playing, and composing all over Italy. (And causing a scandal or two.) Alessandro (Pietro Alessandro Gaspare) Scarlatti was the best known among his five musical siblings.
His fame was built on his prolific output of operas, cantatas, and other forms of sacred and secular vocal music. Since earning a living then depended largely on the support of patrons, Alessandro wrote music for churches and courts in Rome and Florence even though he spent much of his life in Naples. As director of the Teatro San Bartolomeo, he raised the level and quality of that Neapolitan theatre’s operatic and stage productions, and so he is considered the Father of the Neapolitan school of opera.
But in the area of keyboard music Alessandro was easily surpassed by his own son, Domenico. He knew it. He took Domenico with him to Florence, hoping to obtain patronage for his son, telling Ferdinando de’ Medici that Domenico was “an eagle whose wings are grown … and I must not hinder his flight.” But no luck there either for father or son. When Domenico managed to escape from his father’s control (finally!) he was off to Portugal to achieve his own fame with those 555 original and unconventional harpsichord (perhaps even early piano) Sonatas. With the exception of a few Toccatas, Alessandro didn’t write much keyboard music until he was 55, toward the end of his life. His set of variations on the Folia is undoubtedly his best keyboard work.
October figures in the life of both father and son. Alessandro died 22 October 1725; Domenico was born 26 October 1685. You can play Alessandro’s Folia (Piano Literature Book 4) with whatever abandon might lead to your own bit of madness.