The Ballade pour piano et orchestre is one of six ballads that Martin wrote for solo instrument and orchestra, being preceded by the ballads for alto saxophone (1938) and flute (1939) and followed by those for trombone (1940), cello (1949), and 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 piano was originally conceived for violin and orchestra and was begun in May 1939 during a difficult period of the composer’s life. His first wife, Irène Gardian, died at the end of that month, and Martin deliberately persevered with the composition in an effort to overcome his bereavement, changing the solo instrument from violin to piano. After his death his later wife, Maria Martin, discovered a set of early sketches in which the Ballade bore the title Chant d’amour. Whether this original title arose before or after Irene’s death can no longer be determined; in any event it was later deleted.
Work on the Ballade proceeded through the summer of 1939 on the Atlantic island of Oléron and came to an end on 5 December of that year. The piece is thus contemporary with Le Vin herbé and likewise reflects Martin’s preoccupation with dodecaphonic technique. The expansive opening melody is based on a twelve-note series, as are the three themes that follow. Although all four are employed as melodic entities, they are also subsumed in the work’s harmony – a feature unique in Martin’s oeuvre. At no point, however, is the music allowed to become atonal.
The Ballade pour piano was given its premiere performance in Zurich on 1 February 1944. Walter Frey, to whom the work is dedicated, took the piano part; the orchestra was conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
Bradford Robinson, 2005