This latest release from the multi-award-winning partnership of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake features a literary and musical form which inspired the greatest voices of German Romanticism. The foremost poets and composers of the age saw the ballad as a direct link to the folk-minstrels of the past. Frequently ghoulish and sensational in character, ballads satisfied the popular taste for the Gothic. This disc contains some of the greatest examples of the form, including Schubert’s Erlkönig, as well as some fascinating and lesser-known works. The disc also includes selections from the ever-popular English ballad tradition.
Gerald Finley’s unrivalled gift for characterization and story-telling, honed both on the stages of opera houses around the world and through his extraordinary Lieder recordings, makes him the ideal performer of these works. This is a genuinely entertaining and original disc.
Other recommended albums
In the Middle Ages a ‘ballad’, like its French and Italian equivalents (ballade, balata), was a dance-song, typically performed by street minstrels. But the word gradually came to mean a strophic (i.e. with the same music sung to each verse) narrative song, with the tune habitually passed down from singer to singer, generation to generation. Sensational, ghoulish and supernatural themes were the norm: tales of wife-murder, parricide, warring clans (a Scottish favourite), avenging revenants, miraculous rescues, fatal enchantment by fairies and sprites. Some ballads, like the Danish folk-tale from which Goethe drew his Erlkönig, are nail-biting races against the clock, compressed thrillers-in-verse.
In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany the vogue for ballads—often of English, Celtic or Scandinavian origin—was part of an aesthetic that rejected Gallic-rococo artifice in favour of an idealized ‘primitive’ art. Herder (who translated numerous English and Scottish folk poems), Goethe, Schiller and scores of lesser poets satisfied and stimulated contemporary taste with grim, blood-drenched tales, many set to music by composers such as Johann Zumsteeg—an influential pioneer of the German ballad—and, in a later generation, Carl Loewe and the teenaged Schubert. Goethe was also a master of the comic and satirical ballad, most famously the ‘Flohlied’ set by Beethoven. The collection of folk poems assembled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’) would inspire composers including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and, above all, Mahler.
While Gothic horror tales provoked many a frisson in Victorian drawing rooms, the English nineteenth-century ballad, whether designed for parlour, music hall or opera, was typically a sentimental affair, sometimes capped with an edifying moral. Nowadays the term ballad has come to mean simply a popular song in (usually) a slow tempo. Sentiment still rules. But in many a song of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter soulfulness is spiced and undermined by a sly or mordant wit.
A terrible singer himself, Beethoven was avowedly frustrated by the limitations of the human voice. Yet he still produced over eighty Lieder, ranging from witty or melancholy trifles in folk vein to the ‘spiritual songs’ to texts by Gellert. Composed in the mid-1790s and revised for publication in 1809, Aus Goethes Faust Op 75 No 3 sets Mephistopheles’ famous ballad ‘Flohlied’ (the ‘Song of the Flea’) from the Auerbachs Keller scene (this noted Leipzig tavern still exists today) in Faust: Ein Fragment, which Goethe later incorporated into Part One of his Faust epic. While the vocal part is in bluff ballad style, the keyboard brilliantly enlivens the viciously satirical verses with its manic leaps between registers and biting little grace-notes.
Born just two months before Schubert, Carl Loewe was a nineteenth-century incarnation of a medieval strolling minstrel. Although he composed chamber music, operas and oratorios, it was as a singer of his own songs that he was most celebrated. The admiring Viennese dubbed him ‘the north German Schubert’; and wherever he performed he was acclaimed both for his imposing dramatic presence and his beautiful baritone voice.
As a travelling actor-singer adept at wooing an audience, Loewe was naturally drawn to the narrative ballad as popularized by Zumsteeg and Reichardt. Mining a fashionable vein of grand guignol, Herder’s Edward (also set by Schubert and Brahms) is a translation of a Scottish folk ballad from Bishop Percy’s 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Loewe never surpassed his 1818 setting of this grisly tale of parricide, far more powerful than Schubert’s surprisingly muted treatment. He gives each desperate cry of ‘O!’ a psychologically revealing new twist, and reinforces the two most dramatic moments with a chilling harmonic shock: at Edward’s confession of murder (‘Ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Vater tot’), and at the hysterical final curse, where the seething keyboard part seems to conjure a Wagnerian orchestra.
Goethe’s tongue-in-cheek ballad Die wandelnde Glocke tells the cautionary tale of an errant schoolboy terrified into mending his ways by a roving bell. Loewe’s setting of 1832—one of his rare comic ballads—illustrates the narrative in delightful picture-book style. The voice sings a jaunty, folksy tune, while the piano provides pungent comic detail—the tolling bell, the blithely skipping child, and the hullabaloo as the bell ‘escapes’.
Schubert’s celebrated Erlkönig dates from his annus mirabilis of 1815, in which he composed over 140 Lieder, sometimes three or four in a single day. The poem comes from a little-known Goethe play with music, Die Fischerin, performed at the Weimar court in 1782. The fisher-girl of the title, Dortchen, sings it softly to herself one evening as she mends her nets. What Goethe expected (and, in Weimar, got) was a simple quasi-folk tune repeated for each verse. Small wonder, then, that he was baffled by Schubert’s setting, which hijacks the poem with a radical, through-composed structure, feverish galloping rhythms and a searing dramatic power that culminates in the coup of the final stunned recitative. Published as Schubert’s Op 1, Erlkönig remained his most popular song throughout the nineteenth century. Ironically, when the aged Goethe heard it sung by the famous prima donna Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in 1830, two years after Schubert’s death, he showed a change of heart: ‘Sung in this way’, he told her, ‘it all begins to take shape as a visible picture.’
While Robert Schumann is revered above all as the master of the epigrammatic lyric, he also wrote several songs modelled on the narrative ballads of Loewe, a composer he greatly admired. Composed in July 1840, two months before his marriage to Clara Wieck, Die Löwenbraut sets a lurid and, to modern tastes, laughable tale by Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the Frauenliebe und -leben poems. After a keyboard prelude evoking the prowling beast’s massive tread, the voice intones a stark quasi-folk melody on which Schumann will later build the song’s gnarled chromatic climax. When the bride speaks (‘Wir waren in Tagen, die nicht mehr sind’), the music slips from G minor to an assuaging G major with an unmistakable allusion to Widmung, the opening song of the Myrthen collection that Schumann would present to Clara on their wedding day. Even with his marriage now virtually assured, Schumann doubtless identified Chamisso’s ‘rosige Maid’ with Clara—hence the Widmung reference. Perhaps he even associated the old lion with her father Friedrich Wieck, who from the outset had implacably opposed their union.
Dating from November 1840, two months after Robert and Clara were married, Der Schatzgräber, a setting of a grim morality tale by the devoutly Catholic Joseph von Eichendorff, is the most powerful and concentrated of Schumann’s ballads. The piano graphically depicts, in turn, obsessive, effortful digging (with the spade attacking the earth in a series of sforzando accents), angelic harps (in the light-filled music at ‘Die Engel Gottes sangen’) and manic, diabolical laughter as the mineshaft collapses over the hubristic digger. The angels’ music is then fleetingly recalled before the digging theme ebbs away in the postlude.
Brahms engaged deeply with folksong throughout his creative life, from his Op 1 Piano Sonata to the forty-nine Deutsche Volkslieder published in 1894, of which he declared that no other work had given him so much pleasure. In 1860 he wrote to his muse and confidante Clara Schumann: ‘Song composition is currently sailing on so false a course that one cannot sufficiently remind oneself of an ideal: and that to me is German folksong.’ The boundaries between traditional folk and latter-day fake were sometimes blurred, not least in the collection assembled by August Kretzschmer and Anton von Zuccalmaglio which Brahms drew on for his folksong arrangements. But more than authenticity, the composer valued the unadorned beauty and immediacy of the melodies. He set the touching tale Es war ein Markgraf as a doleful waltz, using the same haunting tune throughout but varying the accompaniment in the third and fourth verses with flowing quavers and hints of counterpoint.
In Mörike’s novel Maler Nolten, one of the characters sings the tale of Der Feuerreiter, the legendary fire-rider: at the time of the Thirty Years’ War, a mysterious ‘Mad Captain’ would appear from nowhere whenever a fire broke out, and with unerring instinct gallop to the scene of the disaster and put out the fire, perhaps with the aid of black magic. In 1888 Hugo Wolf seized on the story’s nightmarish power to create a ballad of glittering, demonic energy whose graphic detail—the shrill alarm, the panicking crowd, the burning mill, the frantic pounding of hooves—is subsumed into a quasi-symphonic structure. Not for the only time in his songs, Wolf requires his pianist to simulate a howling, shrieking Wagnerian orchestra. After the terrifying scene has faded, with the bell continuing to tinkle in the distance, the time frame moves from past to present. The skeleton crumbles to ashes (‘da fällts in Asche ab’) in eerie diminished-seventh chords, marked pppp; and the song ends with a mournful benediction and a ghostly echo of the bell, tolling like a funeral knell.
Mahler had known and loved the Knaben Wunderhorn anthology of folk poetry since his childhood in the German-speaking Moravian town of Iglau. From that time, too, dates his abiding fascination with military music. Round the corner from the theatre where Mahler played from the age of ten was a barracks. Bugle calls, fanfares and marches were part of the boy’s everyday experience, even more so when the town was occupied by Bismarck’s troops in the early 1870s. Like the songs of the soldiers and their local girls, they would haunt him for the rest of his life. One of Mahler’s great hallucinatory nocturnal scenes, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (1898) is an encounter between a girl and the spectre of her soldier sweetheart (shades here of Kipling’s and Housman’s poems of doomed and phantasmal soldiers). A minor-keyed funeral march, complete with muffled drums and distant bugle calls, is poignantly juxtaposed with major-keyed music of lulling tenderness evoking, first, a slow Ländler (‘Das ist der Herzallerlieble dein’) and then, at ‘Willkommen, trauter Knabe mein’, a hypnotic lullaby.
Stanford’s La belle dame sans merci is a setting of Keats’ famous 1819 ballad of the unnamed knight fatally bewitched by the mysterious ‘faery’s child’—a favourite subject for composers and pre-Raphaelite painters alike. Stanford composed this celebrated song early in 1877 (making it an exact contemporary of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord), drawing on sketches he had made over a decade earlier. As in many of Loewe’s ballads (Stanford’s probable model), the successive verses vary the plain, bardic melody, with the piano-as-orchestra adding atmosphere and illustrative detail. A seductive, remote modulation lures the knight to his ruin (‘She took me to her elfin grot’). In the penultimate verse he awakens to eerie chromatic harmonies, before text and music return to the chill reality of the opening.
One possible source for the dying hero of the ancient Anglo-Scottish border ballad Lord Randall, cast (like Loewe’s Edward) as a dialogue between mother and son, is Randolph, 6th Earl of Chester (d 1232). His murderer may have been his lover, his wife, or, as one Scottish source has it, a disguised fairy who had lured him when he stumbled by accident into the sacred greenwood. Cyril Scott’s 1926 arrangement vividly dramatizes the traditional tune, with sweetly curdled harmonies to suggest the venom seeping through Lord Randall’s veins (‘O I fear ye are poisoned’), and acrid dissonances at the climax as he bequeaths a ‘rope from hell’ to his ‘true love’.
No English ballad has been so mercilessly sent-up as Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, composed as Sullivan’s actor-singer brother Fred (who, inter alia, created the role of the Judge in Trial by Jury) lay dying early in 1877. As a reaction against all things Victorian set in after World War One, the sub-Tennysonian sentimentality of Adelaide Anne Procter’s text, and a melodic idiom comfortably rooted in the Anglican choir stalls, seemed fair game for the lampooners. Yet in a sincere and sympathetic performance, this ballad—made famous by Antoinette Stirling, Clara Butt and Caruso (who sang it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1912 at a concert in aid of the victims of the Titanic disaster)—has a touching fervour, rising through the troubled minor-keyed harmonies of the penultimate verse to the majestic final peroration.
The Plymouth-born composer and bandmaster Louis Emanuel (1819–c1889) composed his entertainingly over-the-top ballad The Desert around 1860, probably for performance in Vauxhall Gardens where he was music director from 1845. The swirling chromatic scales—depicting the wheeling vulture—and pounding repeated notes of the piano introduction irresistibly suggest silent-movie music. After the ‘parched’ music of ‘No stream can I find’, and a brief lyrical interlude as the stranded hero thinks of family and friends, the vulture circles ever closer. Then, with a change from ominous E flat minor to E flat major, a bell tinkles softly in the distance: cue for our hero to celebrate his imminent rescue in a rollicking 6/8 metre.
The Tale of the Oyster is a chic, witty number from Cole Porter’s 1929 hit 50 Million Frenchmen, billed as ‘a Musical Comedy Tour of Paris in 2 Acts’. The singer is the worldly-wise fur-buyer Violet Hildegarde, who has travelled abroad hoping to be shocked. She sends up high society with a cynical tale of a ‘bivalve social climber’, gliding proudly down Mrs Hoggenheimer’s alimentary canal and emerging chastened to proclaim ‘I’ve had a taste of society, and society has had a taste of me’.
Richard Wigmore © 2011