This Baroque-era work is a real favourite with flutists; a beautiful tune that seems familiar, and you can just play the bits you like! If all that sounds a bit too good to be true, read all about this famous tune at “La Folia; A Musical Cathedral” (http://members. chello.nl/folia/index.html) documenting over 300 versions of “La Folia” by more than 150 composers and then follow the links (or go to http://www.folias.nl/html5m.html and scroll down to Marin Marais) for details on this work including references to some 95 recordings plus the relevant program notes.
Marin Marais’ original was published in Pieces de Viole, 2e livre (Paris, 1701). It was also published for other melody instruments, and the solo version for flute, in E minor, is available for free (hooray!) at: http://imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/8/89/ IMSLP17152-Marais_-_Les_Folies_d_Espagne.pdf
Because this is a transcription, it is understood we have some freedom in interpretation. Many performers consider that there are simply too many variations altogether, so skipping and rearranging the order of chosen variations is common practice. Repeating the theme at the end can be extremely effective for a sad finish. Such flexibility makes this work particularly convenient for situations with time constraints (auditions, competitions) or for an eager student who can’t quite get around some of the more technically challenging variations yet. Finally, because this work is inherently a ‘show off’ piece, rather than a pivotal sonata in the repertoire, it is a ‘safer’ baroque-styled selection for an audition being assessed by a musician renowned for firm ideas on how to play Bach, for instance. I’m only going to concentrate the ‘how to’ on the theme, but first a few words about the concept of a theme and variations:
In my view, the one negative aspect of this form is that there is an inherent repetitiveness (same harmonic structure and phrase sizes throughout). A successful performance needs to convey a musical journey rather than a predictable sequence of bits! I begin with exploratory practice, trying to focus as much as possible on identifying what I think might be the potential character – and I mean something really distinctive! – for each variation. This choice dictates everything for my practice sessions to polish it up. If you are going to do some re-arranging of the order, this would be the time to consider that too, because you don’t want any side by side variations to sound similar. I like to consider which variations might be fastest, loudest, softest, slowest, etc., etc. I can hear almost every possibility here; spiky staccatos, brilliant flamboyance, heavier deliberate rhythms, very soft and delicate melodies drawing the listener in, and tremendous fun playing with the meter – is it triple or duple beats per measure? Hemiolas anyone? For those familiar with baroque styles, try some delectable
36July 2009 – Flute Focuswww.flutefocus.com
Alexa Still records for Koch International Classics and performs concerts internationally. She has just finished an elected term as Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Flute Association (USA) and is now based in Sydney as Head of Flute and Chair of Woodwind at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You can read, see and hear much more at her website: www.alexastill.com
French ornamentation à la Couperin. I challenge you to be daring... this piece is what you choose to make of it!
On to the theme: I’ve heard this work many times with the theme convincingly anything from gut-wrenchingly sad to stately and majestic. Much depends on tempo and volume (dynamics on the downloadable score are bracketed because they not the composer’s), but most depends on the shaping of the long notes (how long are the phrases?) and how the arpeggiated grace notes ‘help’ the melody. At first, resist the urge to do it all. If you can play the main melody notes alone (and let your imagination add the chords), I hope you can experiment and choose what you consider musically best phrasing rather than phrasing influenced by (difficult) low notes, and therefore what perhaps just suits playing the flute. When added, those arpeggiated chords can be anything from a supporting bass melody to a mere shadow of harmonic context. Once you have an idea of how the melody should go, it is time to experiment with placing the chords before the beat, on the beat, and with various rubatos (speeding up, slowing down) and various lengths on those bottom notes particularly. Try to listen to some great viol players – a true education in baroque style and the power of these chords. This is a great, beautiful tune, but playing this theme clearly enough can be tricky.... if your arpeggiated chord gestures don’t reinforce your rhythm, your listener won’t understand your rhythm as you do. They may even think you can’t keep a beat going!
Playing in tune here is another big challenge. This solo version for flute is in E minor, probably to give us D as the lowest note, as it was on many flutes of that day. In my experience, the degree of flatness may vary from flute to flute, but that opening E is plain flat! In another context, I’d say work hard and get that note sharper, but here, because the whole piece features E, and we are predominantly in the lower and more flexible registers, I’d consider compromising, tuning the other notes a little to better suit the E. This approach might make keeping that E from sagging on diminuendos just a little easier.
Then, I think you need to decide what pitch sounds best for each step away from E. Are the D#s to be placed normally, as in what we might describe as equal temperament (think piano tuning), or placed slightly sharper as leading notes? The implied harmony in that second measure is a B-D#-F#-A chord and we prefer slightly flattened major thirds harmonically, but melodically the D# is also a raised seventh note, leading back to the E. I’d definitely choose to play the last D#, in the second to last measure, slightly higher. Perhaps in the 8th measure D# would be a more normal one, as it could be the end of the first half and has much less of job as leading tone raised seventh?
F# presents a similar problem, in measure 4 and 6, where we perceive the music to be moving in and out of G major. Once you have an idea of what pitch you are aiming at, the big task is playing with lots of nuance without the pitch moving even slightly! The Tartini software mentioned elsewhere in this issue might be just the perfect tool. If you prefer the more traditional tuner, trust your judgement
of the pitch (so, don’t worry where that shows up on your tuner) and then check the tuner to see that you don’t deviate from wherever you start. An in tune keyboard with sustain pedal could be helpful too – play the bass note of the harmony you imagine as a reference tone.
I hope you enjoy this very famous tune as much as I do!