Frank Martin: Ballade
The Ballade pour violoncelle et petit orchestre is the fifth of six ballads that Martin wrote for solo instrument and orchestra, being preceding by the ballads for alto saxophone, piano, flute, and trombone, and followed by a final one for viola (1972). In all these works he sought to achieve what he called music that is “at once informal and epic,” a narrative consisting of a series of uninterrupted episodes. The Ballade pour violoncelle, which also exists in an equivalent version for cello and piano, was written after Martin’s highly individual assimilation of twelve-tone technique in Le vin herbé and is likewise dominated by the austere tone that marks the music of his maturity.
Martin later described the work as follows: “This Ballad was written in 1949 during the same period as the Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments. Its piano and orchestral versions are both original, for in composing the piece I undertook the orchestral score and the piano part simultaneously. I might have called it a Concertino or Konzertstück, but I preferred the term ‘ballad,’ which connects the piece with various others I had composed some time earlier for saxophone (1938), flute (1939), piano (1939), and trombone (1940). It opens by drawing on a rhetorical statement for the cello in double stops, a statement that returns at the end, adorned with rapid embellishments from the orchestra. Between these two pillars are various episodes – light, lyrical, passionate – that produce an extremely free form of what the classical composers would have called a ‘fantasy.’ This term does not imply an absence of structure, but rather a structure that avoids drawing on an established model. The true character of this Ballad is perhaps more accurately conveyed by the terms lyrical and epic.”
The première was given in Zurich on 17 November 1950 by the cellist and pioneer gambist August Wenzinger and the Collegium Musicum, conducted by Paul Sacher. Despite the work’s underlying mood of despondency, the performance was a triumph with audience and critics alike and further secured Martin’s reputation as a composer of European stature. Thoroughly typical was the response of the critic of the Neues Winterthurer Tagblatt (20 November 1950): “Quietly, almost gloomily, later gathering energy, the cello lifts its voice in a monologue; the orchestral merely provides the background in which are heard isolated voices of lamentation until the strings brighten the atmosphere. The monologue is transformed into a dialogue between soloist and orchestra that expands to greater agitation only to be cut short by a sort of dance. The agitation grows anew and ebbs away as the flute introduces a brief idyll. The cello picks up the song and expands it into a sort of funeral dirge. The dance returns in sharper rhythms only to reach new points of repose and finally to fade quietly away. The entire piece of some 20 minutes’ duration is truly balladesque in character and of an unusual density of emotion.”
Since then the Ballade has maintained a steady if slight hold in the repertory, notably in its piano version, which was recorded by the Britten-Pears Ensemble and memorably by Henri Honegger (cello) with the composer himself at the piano.
Bradford Robinson, 2006