La Folia is term for a musical framework used during the Baroque period for songs, dances and sets of variations. It is most easily recognised by it's trademark chord progression (in the key of D Minor): Dm A7 Dm C F C Dm A7 Dm A7 Dm C F C Dm A7 Dm. However, like other dance forms and ostinato types, the folia did not consist merely of a chord progression, but included a complex of other distinctive musical elements such as metric patterns, rhythmic and melodic figures, cadential formulae and so forth.
The history of the folia predates the earliest surviving musical sources. A dance called the ‘folia’ was popular in late 15th-century Portugal; it probably originated as a folk dance, but Portuguese sources of the period mention folias sung and danced during both popular festivals and courtly spectacles. Folia texts appear in Portuguese and Spanish theatrical works of the 15th Century. Sung on stage by an ensemble in costume, they retain a popular tone and a metrical form characterized by a refrain of two, three or four lines. The few descriptions of the folia dance containing specific references to its performance manner date from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1611 Sebastián de Covarrubias described the folia as a Portuguese dance that was very noisy, performed with tambourines and other instruments by disguised street-porters carrying young men in women’s clothing on their shoulder. He also explained that the name, which means ‘mad’ or ‘empty-headed’, was appropriate because the dance was so fast and noisy that the dancers seemed to be out of their minds. Gonzalo Correa, in 1626 related the poetic form of the folia to that of the seguidilla and added that the performance was often accompanied by guitar, sonajas and panderos (types of tambourine).
The Early Folia
The earliest known composition to use the folia progression in an ostinato fashion is the Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa in Alonso Mudarra’s Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela of 1546. The title ‘folia’ first appeared in 1577, however, in Francisco de Salinas’s De musica libri septem.
There is no doubt that the folia was enjoying great popularity in Italy by the early 17th century. The chords to be strummed as the accompaniment to the folia were included in more than 50 tablatures for the five-course guitar, beginning with Girolamo Montesardo’s Nuova inventione d’intavolatura (1606).
The rhythmic pattern of the early folia continually emphasizes 3/4 metre, whereas both the melody and the harmonic changes often oscillate between 3/2 and 6/4. Though most often in G minor, the folia may be cast in other keys or, rarely, in the major mode; sometimes both major and minor modes alternate within a single statement of the scheme.
The Late Folia
In the course of the 1670s the folia scheme underwent some decisive transformations. Lully, who composed the earliest known example of the new folia model (an "Air des hautbois", dated 1672), no doubt played a vital role in the late history of the genre. The new structure developed by Lully and his French colleagues remained popular in France and England until the end of the Baroque period. This late folia begins with a statement of the scheme in in which all second beats are dotted. This threw a powerful secondary accent on the opening chord, a significant detail that may have acted as a transition to the new rhythmic structure employed by the later folia.
In the later folia the first accent falls on I, with a resulting shift in the rhythmic structure. The melody, which was for the most part, fixed, moves a 3rd lower than the melody in the earlier folia, with second beats dotted, particularly in the odd-numbered bars. The second-beat accentuation may be the reason why this folia was said to be related to the sarabande. The later folia has no ritornellos, is almost always in D minor, and is generally slow and dignified.