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The Early Folia

Origins of the Early Folia

According to 16th century and early 17th century sources Portugal was the birthplace of the folia.
In these modern times some seek the origins even in African or Oriental culture (e.g Trovesi) or at least they credit cultural influences from these regions in the development of the folia. This is not so strange, as in the early 15th century slaves from the westcoasts of Africa were imported fin Portugal to work on the plantations. Portugese ships explored the west coast of Africa en made contact with the states on these coasts. Moorish influence (a mix of Arabian and North-African cultures) was very strong in the Iberian peninsula.
After 1500 the colonial expansion and conquests brought also new iAmerndian en African musical forms from the Americas to Europe. The most famous of these are the chaconne and the sarabande. However without other reliable sources everything said about any other origin of the early folia than the Portugese is pure speculation.

Sources from the 16th and early 17th century give impressions of the folia, which was danced with such loud music, that the dancers seemed to lose their minds. The folias that come to us from the prints and manuscripts, preserved in palatial and churchly musical collections dating back to the late 15th century are however far removed from the original noisy maddening dance from the streets, village squares and pastures. The hypnotic swinging rythms of ancient Spanish folk music preserved in the 16th century Ensaladas give us a vague glimpse of how the folias might have affected performers and public alike
The problems of identifying 16th century compositions as early folias are discussed in a German treatise in which the author for uses the musical theories of the renaissance for analysing the compositions of that period.

What’s in a name?

“Cara cossa”, “La Gamba”, Pavana, “Gallairde Cara Cossa” “Gaillarde La Gamba”, “Romaneasca-La Folia”, Folia, Folias, Pavaniglia.
Either the name folia is given to a piece by its composer like Piccinini, Kapsberger or the name is attached in later times by musicologists due to the characteristics of the composition. There is even a Spanish passacaille with the Cara Cossa melody (cd Spanish Music from the Golden Age by Extempore)
The folia bearing the name pavane is usually identical with the cara cossa form: mostly melancholic and slow; in accordance with the general nature of the pavane.
Cabezon also composed a Pavana Italiana, which is also identified as the Pavana d'Espagne, and thought to be an off shoot of the folia. The Gaillarde La Cara Cossa or La Gamba sounds generally a bit livelier.
In Italy the name Follia was also used for a similar kind of musical scheme: the Fedele. The most famous of these is Frescobaldi. However the Fedele is not a folia and will not be discussed further.

Renaissance dance music and the folia

Renaissance dance music was based on ground basses. A regular rhythm and phrasing and simple frequently repetitive melodic patterns determined the character of dance music. The basslines of these dances became often the basis for improvisations, a practice carried on in the Baroque with the basso ostinato. Sometimes these ground basses were in turn taken from the dance tunes. One of these tunes was the Folia originally a dance in a minor key
The earliest identified Folias can be found in the Cancionero del Palacio (The Songbook of the Palace, ca. 1500).
Early in the 16th century the folia tune had become a ground bass which was already present in a number of polyphonic pieces, as a ground over which various contrasting melodies could be built. The folia was characterized by an elaborate chordal framework thas was repeated with variations several times throughout the composition. The chordal patterns were versatile enough to be used for variation sets
Examples of the variations sets were written by Ortiz and Cabezon, but also similar chord progressions, with sometimes a different pattern or with greater rhythmic and formal freedom in the piece (e.g Mudarra) are to be found.

Characteristics of the Early Folia:

  • Dorian mode minor key
  • a certain focus on the relative major and minor keys, caused by the emphasis on the roots of the tonic and dominant chord of those keys
  • The folia pattern has a bipartite nature
    • In the middle is a dividing dominant after which the pattern from the first halve is mirrored
    • 8 bar symmetry
  • but no standard rhythm
  • no standard melody not even a standard chord progression

The foliabass is often obscured, depending on the complexity of the variations and the instrumentation. In a solo piece for harpsichord or a plucked string instrument this ground bass is easier to identify, than in ensemble pieces. Also in organ and bowed string instruments the tones tend to blend and give the listener an hard time. It takes a lot of listening and earpricking to identify the foliabass.
Of course the compositions for the different instruments were written especially with the characteristics and possibilities of these instruments in mind. Another important factor is the development of music (theory and practice) and the instruments (improvement in building instruments and the invention of new instruments) itself during the renaissance and early baroque, which also influenced the compositions for the folia.

Performance practices and artistic interpretation of today's perfomers can sometimes aggravate the identification of an 16th century or 17th century folia composed prior to 1672. If sometimes even performers and musicologists confuse another ground or dance type with a folia, imagine how a lay listener must feel.
Some of these early folia’s are exuberant, others slow solemn and melancholic. Folias are sung (villancico’s and romanzas), danced or just instrumental compositions. Some composers wrote even different kinds of folias (Encina, Cabezon, Mudarra). Salinas in 1577 presents us with two alternative versions of the tune and so does Ortiz (1557).
To make matters even more complex: the folia was close kin to the passamezzo and romanesca. Diego Ortiz treats in his Trattado de Glossas (1557) all these different dances and offers the listener a nice opportunity to compare the differences. How close these musical forms are related is shown by Norman Douglas Anderson with examples of thebass patterns for these three forms.
The confusion between the musical forms Follia-Fedele-Passamezzo, Romanesca and Alta Regina often confounds modern listeners.

Around 1600 the foliaground became a ornamented harmonic pattern and a vehicle for variation sets. Mendoza's Differencias de folias of 1593 is the earliest appearance of a set of variations on this harmonic progression.

For an extensive study in the development of the Folia especially in guitar and lute music see Richard Hudson ,The Folia, the saraband, the passacaglia, and the chaconne : the historical evolution of four forms that originated in music for the five-course Spanish guitar (compiled by Richard Hudson).Neuhausen-Stuttgart : American Institute of Musicology : Hanssler-Verlag, 1982. Description: 1 score (4 v.) : facsims. ; 30 cm. Series: Musicological studies & documents ; 35 Publisher No.: 68.735/10 Hanssler-Verlag 68.735/20 Hanssler-Verlag 68.735/30 Hanssler-Verlag 68.735/40 Hanssler-Verlag Contents: v. 1. The folia -- v. 2. The saraband -- v. 3. The passacaglia -- v. 4. The chaconne. Subjects: Music -- 16th century. Music -- 17th century. Music -- 18th century. Folias (Music) Sarabands. Passacaglias. Chaconnes.

In his study Hudson treats the development of the folia in guitar and lute music and he makes a distinction between several different types in this evolution. I have tried to capture these different types in the following table.

Early Folias categorized by Hudson, by development in the chordprogession






















x x













For a more detailed list of early folias categorized by Hudson click here

From the profane to the sacred

The folia started as a kind of fertility dance, was danced sung during carnival and other feasts, and performed in the theatre. In spite of these profane origins the early folias also penetrated into the realm of sacred music as shown in "Adoramoste Senor", "Tiento de litanie de la Virgen" or "Mil suspiros dio Maria". The saintly women Teresa de Avila and Ana de S. Bartolomé wrote spiritual songs on the folia melodies composed by Juan de Enzina. Something similar happened in the 18th and 19th century when the later Folia was a vehicle for psalms and cantiques spirituels.

Things to come: from early to the later folia

Corbetta’s folias composed over a period of 35 years are generally considerd to be the evolutionary link between the early folia and the later form wich emerged around 1672, but the folias in Pakingtons Pound,(1618) Falconieri (1650), Bertali & Leopold I (1655) and Uccelini (1660) are also foreshadowing things to come.

Timeline of the various appearances of the "Early Folia"

(with links to musical examples in the coloured bars)











Type 1



Type 2


Type 3

Cara cosa- la Gamba


Type 4



Type 5


Later Folia

Later Folia


Not yet categorized as 1-5

Chronological listing of the various appearances of the "Early Folia"