Ballad. The 19th century art form

 © The New Grove, 1980 (§II of "Ballad", p. 75ff.)


The ballad in German song was an impersonal poetic narrative in German, often an imita­tion or translation of a traditional English ballad, used as a text for an 18th- or 19th-century lied. Usually ballad texts were secular and legendary (on national or supernatural themes); their tone was often tragic, and they tended to idealize primitive life and feeling.

   Traditional ballads collected in the mid-18th century (notably by Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765) were imitated by Bürger (Lenore, 1773) and Goethe (Erlkönig, 1782) and translated by Herder (in his Volkslieder, 1778-9). The poeticized prose of “Ossian” (James Macpherson), often ostensibly translated from Gaelic epic, and published between 1760 and 1765, was similarly disseminated in Germany. The two strains, traditional and literary, blended in the indi­genous art ballads of Goethe and Schiller, which are elevated in style and verse form, moral or didactic in tone and have subjects freely derived from classical, oriental or medieval legends.

   The earliest significant ballad composers were J. F. Reichardt, C. F. Zelter and J. R. Zumsteeg of the so-called Second Berlin School. Of these Zumsteeg had the widest expressive range; he strongly influenced both Schubert and Loewe, for example in motivic keyboard writing (compare the urgent hoofbeat rhythms in their Erlkönig settings of 1815 and 1818 respectively). Indeed, many of Schubert's early ballads were directly and deliberately modelled on those of Zumsteeg, borrowing and developing either his simple repetitive strophic style or his more complex scene- and mood-painting with recitative and arioso sections. Loewe. less fertile in musical invention but experienced as a ballad singer, achieved a successful synthesis of Zumsteeg's two styles, avoiding over-emphasis whether of verbal repetition or musical depiction. The story is narrated in direct melody and graphically if naively illustrated on the keyboard, often with effective use of the higher register. Lowe used this simplified compromise not only for settings of the earliest ballads (Goethe, Herder) but also for the next two generations of ballad poets, Uhland, Rückert and Platen, and their successors, Freiligrath and Fontane. Schubert's more intense and concentrated melodic or motivic style was apter for the shorter ballad in the folksong vein.

   Later ballad composers (e.g. Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler) drew on both Loewe's and Schubert's ballad styles, the clearest influence being that of Loewe on Wolf as seen in the keyboard style of such extended narratives as Der Feuerreiter (Mörike). In many works (Schumann's cantatas on ballad texts by Uhland and Geibel, Senta's ballad in Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer, Liszt's symphonic poem Mazeppa after Hugo and Duparc's Lenore and Franck's Le chasseur maudit, both based on Bürger) the genre became orchestral and remained so in the last 19th-century examples.