What makes Salieri's Variations on "La follia di spagna" noteworthy is that it is one of only very few sets of successful orchestral variations that was written before the late Romantic period, when the form became more popular after Brahms' 1873 Haydn Variations. Salieri's take on the famous Portuguese (not Spanish, as the title suggests) theme La Folia is fundamentally an exercise in orchestration. His score calls for strings, woodwinds, brass, harp, percussion, and tambourine, all featured at some point over the 26 variations. Salieri does not use any sophisticated variation techniques, such as inversion, nor does he alter the meter of the theme for much of the work or even the key until the very end. Instead he relies on rhythm and instrumentation to create the variations. The D minor theme is stated by the clarinets and bassoons in a stately manner, similar to the Sarabande in Handel's Harpsichord Suite, Vol. 2, No. 3, HWV 436. The variations, each lasting less than a minute, alternate between those for full orchestra and those for one to four soloists and accompaniment by either the full orchestra or just strings or winds. In the variations featuring the full orchestra -- such as No. 5, the somewhat martial No. 8, No. 13 (foreshadowing Philip Glass with its constant arpeggios), and the gigue-like No. 24 -- he is able to achieve tonal colors worthy of Beethoven. Others that stand out are No. 4 for harp; No. 10, which features the percussion instruments; the Italian concerto grosso-like No. 11; No. 17, wherein the woodwinds pass the melody figure to each other from high to low, flute to bassoon, to tympani; and No. 18, which has two distant violins echoing the full orchestra. The final variation goes through all the soloists once more, for good measure, then into a full orchestral coda that makes its way to D major with the call of the horns and flourishes of the violin and harp.
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Description by Patsy Morita