La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?

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6 Responses to La Folia

  1. Linda Hardwick August 6, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Hello Timothy,
    I have longed been intrigued by the La Folia sequence of Corelli. I play the version arranged for treble recorder and keyboard, which is notoriously difficult! I think modern interpretations of this music give much more to the mood of each variation, rather than dwelling on a precise, if rather dull, playing of ‘just the notes’ in a ‘serious’ classical way. I think Corelli would have loved the freshness of this new approach, as music in the Baroque time was far from dull! La Folia sounds to me like a dance sequence. Thank you for comparing these different recordings.

    By the way, the Dueling Fiddlers version is amazing!

    • Timothy Judd August 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the recording, Linda. Thank you for highlighting the point about music in the Baroque era being exciting, free, dramatic and full of effects-anything but dull and academic.

  2. Kerstin Wartberg April 8, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful overview, Timothy! I am working on this topic since long time as well. I’ll come back to this soon.

  3. Daniel February 3, 2015 at 3:55 pm #

    Hi Timothy,

    I fell in love with the La Folia progression a while back when I was asked to accompany a violin student on the Suzuki version you mention at the top of your article, and have been chasing the tune lately trying to better understand its lineage.

    Based on what I’ve learned, I’d like to take issue with the very first sentence of your post. Suzuki violin students do not, in fact, learn anything like Corelli’s “La Folia.” As you point out in the very next sentence, “La Folia” was a popular chord progression going back well before Corelli. In fact, many other well known composers wrote “La Folia” variations *before* Corelli had a go at it.

    The piece Suzuki students learn in book 6 really bears very little resemblance to Corelli’s work (Sonata in D minor, Op. 5, No. 12 – for which you’ve included a youtube link in your original post). If anything, it appears to be a simplification of Kreisler’s “La Folia” – but even at that, it adds several variations that are distinctly new. Suzuki’s version is no less Romantic than Kreisler’s, and is certainly far from being a Baroque piece.

    What Suzuki students are learning should really be called “Shinichi Suzuki’s Variations on La Folia”

    To be fair, this is not a new problem… Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, and others all titled their “La Folia” variations using Corelli’s name. But at least they also clearly attached their own names. I think encountering this piece in book 6 should be an opportunity to encourage students to learn a bit of history — and at least to know who actually composed the music they are playing instead of just being falsely told “You’re playing Corelli’s La Folia.”

    For comparison, here’s the Suzuki version:

    And the Kreisler version (split into two parts):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DypMV127V4

    And of course the original Corelli version you linked to (which, interestingly, though based on the original very Baroque score, is played with a distinctly Romantic style):

    • Timothy Judd February 3, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Daniel. Suzuki’s version, while attributed to Corelli definitely is quite different. I’m guessing that when Suzuki put together the repertoire less was understood about Baroque performance practice and Corelli’s original intentions. Thank you for providing the side by side comparisons.

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