Premiere of Ballads I-III: November 22, 2017 in Vienna's Musikverein, played by Stefan Neubauer and Johannes Marian
Duration: ca. 24 minutes
By partial performances either the first two ballads or the third ballad should be performed.

 

I. Never ending (not wishing to end). 2'53''
II. Steel Drivin' Man (American Railroad Ballad). 2'50"
III. The Ring of Polycrates. 9'06''
IV. La casada infiel (Romancero gitano) 4'00
V. And he didn't return from the battlefield ... 4'54'' 

For some time, I have been wondering how one can write nowadays narrative music, in other words, (instrumental) music that starts from different premises than a piece based on melody or dance, or a composition that remains within the confines of a dramatic or static presentation.

When Stefan Neubauer asked me to write a piece for clarinet and piano, I returned to this question, and chose the genre of the ballad in order to provide a basis for the developing project. Since the ballad is a literary as well as a musical genre, it can be adapted to the most diverse circumstances and situations, is both archaic and modern, appears in many forms and many cultures, and is the reduced, manageable form of a great epic.

After some research, I identified four different basic musical types that were important to me: the literary ballad (presented by the poet himself, who accompanies himself on the guitar using simple harmonies and rhythms); the recited or sung ballad (the musical setting of an art ballad, for example Schubert's Erlkönig); the literary-inspired ballad (textless music referring to a particular literary ballad, for example Brahms's Ballade for piano op. 10/1, which is inspired by the Scottish ballad "Edward"); and finally the ballad of a generally narrative tone (like Chopin's Ballades for piano).

My Ballads op. 22o attempt to explore this narrative character in various forms.

The first ballad ("Never ending, not wishing to end") stays close to the Chopin prototype and thus does not refer to any specific ballad. It seems to describe a search, which develops in continuously forming waves from small semitone steps upwards to ever greater intervals. This search could go on endlessly—thus the title; however, in what appears to be a pathetic intrusion, a countersubject opposes this search by means of increasingly dense chains of trills and chords, which enable the piece to reach a conclusion despite its title.

The second ballad, as its title suggests, is inspired by an American folk ballad: "Steel Drivin' Man" tells the story of the American pioneer spirit during the 19th century, from the wild, but also painful time of the foundation of the railway system and capitalist exploitation. John Henry, the protagonist of our ballad, is a railroad worker who wants to prove that with his strength he can rise above machines, until he ultimately perishes trying to match their overwhelming force.
This story exists in countless versions and settings, which also applies to the musical style, whether in American blues, folk, or rock and pop music. John Henry is usually portrayed as a former slave. I tried to create a type of music that possesses the rhythm of the railroad and at the same time a syncopated "drive," a type of music that through continuously new sound effects, through appoggiaturas and glissandos of particular tonal repetitions, contains a decisive meaning, but at the same time preserves the strophic arrangement of the American original.

In search of a strong contrast, I recalled Schiller's ballad of "The Ring of Polycrates," which belongs to the cultural education already absorbed in school. It is about the tyrant Polycrates and his almost unlikely luck. His guest, the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis, warns him of the envy of the Gods, and advises him to sacrifice his most valuable property to them, whereupon Polycrates throws in to the sea his most beloved ring into the sea. When the ring is found in the stomach of a freshly-caught fish the next day, the guest is horrified: "I can no longer remain here, you cannot be my friend anymore, the Gods want your ruin, and I do not want to perish with you."
In order to relate this story musically, I chose a composition technique that recalls Richard Wagner's working with leitmotifs. I assigned a motif to each of the two main characters, Polycrates and Amasis, and also to the ring itself. The content of Schiller's ballad largely determined the working-out of these motifs. After an exposition describing the arrival of the wise pharaoh before the nervous Polycrates, three episodes follow, in which Polycrates receives good news about his military operations. After Amasis's admonition follows the sacrifice of the ring, and finally comes a coda, in which the motif of the ring becomes more and more prominent until Polycrates himself disappears behind the ring. Because the real theme of this ballad is undoubtedly greed. To express this musically seemed to me to be conceivable only through a hermeneutical interpretation of the content of Schiller's ballad. Yet I was also concerned with not simply writing a merely descriptive program music, but rather to present a variety of harmonic relationships that reflected the complex political relationships between Polycrates, Amasis and the Persians during the antiquity.

The effort to write a narrative music that simultaneously tries to escape the dangers of a superficially-defined programmatic content should be particularly emphasized. This is ensured mainly by the harmonic complexity, but also by rhythmic diversity, which likewise incorporates different focal points and accents. (René Staar, Meggen, September 2017, Translation John Moraitis)

 

The fourth and fifth ballads were written—seemingly as latecomers—in Meggen and Vienna in 2018. The fourth ballad is an attempt to musically express one of the most impressive erotic poems of the first third of the 20th century, Federico García Lorca's La casada infiel (The Unfaithful Housewife) from his Romancero gitano (Gypsy Romances). The poem is not primarily about the implied sexual relationship between a married woman and a member of an ignored ethnic group, the Gitanos; rather, it is about the power of attraction and sudden impulses that are too strong to resist. True love, as Lorca emphasizes several times in the poem, is irrelevant in this situation – after all, she is already married, while he is a "free" man.

I have tried to musically render the lasciviously beguiling atmosphere of the poem, which is reminiscent of an almost overwhelmingly sweet perfume, through the use of a very intense and rich harmonic language. Location and chance also play an important part in this poem: Lorca tends to be suggestive, but sometimes he becomes very specific. It is probably at a summer celebration that the two protagonists (I imagine the Gitano as a flamenco dancer), begin to walk away full of sexual desire, passing through the last houses of the settlement and reaching the river. Cicadas sing and dogs bark, while the protagonists' desire becomes ever stronger.

Impressions of nature are incorporated into the music. After the culmination of lovemaking, tenderness is expressed through the fact that the Gitano carries the woman back from the river and gives her a sewing kit as a gift. The music seeks to capture this tenderness through a quiet postlude duet between clarinet and piano that occurs shortly before the final parting, which is not entirely painless. The rather succinctly expressed conclusion—"there was no reason for love"—is satirized in the music by the contented sound of a gavotte.

The fifth and final ballad, completed on the last day of 2018, is based on a ballad for guitar by the Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Wyssozki (1938-1980) that, as the title suggests (On ne vernulsja iz boja: And he never returned from the battlefield), describes how it feels when your best friend is no longer alive.

In its style that is both ironic and laconic, the Russian ballad resembles the couplet, but also a song of the Brechtian type. The marching rhythm as well as the rhythmic design of the melodic line are both taken over by the guitar ballad. While the ballad consists of a series of verses, in my ballad variants of the march are separated by lyrical intermezzi. In this way, it is possible to develop both articulation and dynamics within the stanzas, and thus present a texture that is constantly changing. At the same time, the use of different registers (in two instances involving the piano's highest and lowest range) and tempo differentiations propel the music forward all the way to the stretta. As a result, it becomes apparent that the intermezzi are rather short their identity is based on the character of the march.

The idea of the clarinet ballad arises out of three main sources: first by a repeated listening experience filtered through the ironic tone of the ballad; second, through the meaning of the literary text; and third, from the desire to develop all these components within a uniquely personal musical form. (Translation John Moraitis)