"La Follia" Variations For Symphony Orchestra (1984)

"La Follia" Variations was commissioned by the late conductor, David Shallon, to be performed in a "Musica Viva" concert by the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany. This work is dedicated to David Shallon who was my pupil for many years and passed away when he was only 49 years old.

When I started the work, I did not yet have a distinct idea on what theme or motto actually to base the variations. The initial uncertainty was indeed appropriate to the situation: variations in search of a theme. And the more I occupied myself with my musical sketches, the more it became clear to me that I was really looking for something well-known, that was resting forgotten and undetected in my memory. Only when the third variation has already taken shape on paper I suddenly realized that this enigmatic, indistinct theme was La Follia: that simple, beautiful melody, so familiar to every music-lover.

But as soon as I asked myself the question "why precisely La Follia"? I could not find a satisfactory answer. It is somehow a mystery. Looking closely at the melody itself, one cannot but wonder why it has been the source of inspiration for so many compositions since the 16th century: from Stefani's Follies d'Espagne (1622) to Frescobaldi, Lully, Corelli, Geminiani, Bach and Cherubini, on to Liszt, Nielsen, Rachmaninov and several contemporary composers like Henze. I was particularly happy to discover later that La Follia's first emergence goes back to the year 1505 in a work by the Portuguese poet and musician Gil Vincente. In this work, whose music is thought lost, four biblical figures – Abraham, Moses, Solomon and Isaiah – are singing a four-part Follia. My composition consists of a prologue, eight variations and an epilogue. The theme itself makes its appearance only after the forth variation. In this respect, as well as in others, this is a symmetric composition throughout although I wish to emphasize that in this case "symmetry" has manifold meanings. If I were, for instance, to explain more exactly the balance between emotion and form, I would say that the first half is composed rather of strictly conceived variations which unfold in the direction of the theme while the second half is more like a Follia, madness, so to speak. Should I again ask myself the question, "Why indeed La Follia"? I can only try to give an answer by means of my music.

To all this I would like to add the beautiful and poetical words by Gregorio Paniagua: "All the composers in the whole world, who write their own Follia, have hardly any clear idea of what they are doing. They are like a tree which will ripen without worrying about its sap. Like the tree, they absorb everything in the midst of the storms of spring, not being afraid that springtime would perhaps never come. And spring does arrive and they are overcome by a mellow tiredness and they are patient without worries and so calm, as though they were in the presence of eternity. This way they are able to carry in themselves their Follia (their madness) and their loneliness. They tolerate the pain that both these are causing them and they succeed to lend beauty to the sounds of their lament" (quotation taken from the liner notes to Paniagua's CD La Follia de la Spagna).

Noam Sheriff