Ballads - history of a slow and romantic genre
Updated: Mar 3
The medieval ballad on a poetic text flourished in the 14th century in France and Italy, respectively.
Around 1360-1365, polyphonic ballads were written that were not intended for dance. They originate from the round dance with alternating soloist/choir: the soloist at the beginning sang the reprise or refrain, director of the dance, repeated by the dancing choir, hence the term reprise.
In the 19th century, several composers, especially German-speaking, wrote musical compositions on a poetic text in the ballad or lied form. In the same century, the instrumental ballad, usually written for solo piano, was a great success. A leading exponent of this was Fryderyk Chopin, who reinvented the Ballad by being the first to write the composition for piano without referring to any literary text.
His four ballads Ballade No. 1 op. 23, Ballade No. 2 op. 38, Ballade No. 3 op. 47 and Ballade No. 4 op. 52 are the most important and popular works of this genre. By composing his four ballads, Chopin created a completely new and supremely romantic musical genre: the instrumental ballad for piano.
In Chopin's time, the ballad was considered an important poetic genre, Goethe being the most obvious example, characterised by unusual themes, an air of mystery and fantasy and a special atmosphere. Chopin's ballads undoubtedly echo the great Romantic poetry in their general conception, combining the epic-dramatic spirit with lyrical elements.
A crucial role in most ballads is played by an expansive coda, as a culmination of both form and expression. There is also a noticeable influence of the sonata form (thematic contrast and thematic work) and the technique of variations.
Common to all ballads is the narrative character of the themes that open the works (occasionally preceded by an introduction) and the tendency towards the expressive transformation of themes. Other composers of the time also wrote compositions in this musical form, including Brahms, Liszt, Grieg and Fauré.
Since the end of the 20th century, the term ballad has increasingly been used to refer to a piece of music played at a slow tempo, which in Italian is simply called lento, or slow song, and this derives from the maccheronic translation of the Anglo-Saxon term ballad, which indicates a song with a slow tempo. In traditional music, this musical form also identifies songs with a more sustained tempo and a subject matter that is not necessarily sentimental, but with a definite narrative content. In the language of jazz, the ballad is a slow song by American pop music, often attributable to great performers such as Frank Sinatra.
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