Popular ballads

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The ‘sell-out’ of a John McCormack concert at the Royal Albert Hall prompted this reflection on popular ballads

The disappointed thousands who went empty away from the Albert Hall on a recent Sunday afternoon suggest that the onward march of orchestral music has, in England at least, left a large public behind. The man, the day, and the hour were propitious: but love of the song and singing is something that the sniff of superiority can never kill. The ballad as a form of indigenous musical expression may lose favour through commercial exploitation, but when we have a revival of the artistry of Sullivan, Stanford, Hatton and Cowan, we may regularly witness Albert Hall besieged. Tauber is not so great that he cannot be equalled occasionally, and the music he sings is no better than has in the past been supplied by Molloy, Piccolomini, Pinsuti, Poniatowsky, or Stephen Adams1. But, while our budding entrepreneurs are pondering the matter, I would point again to the day and the hour, when so many of no great musical culture are anxious to be entertained.

At one time it was quite usual for a young composer to try out his skill at ballad-writing, seeking fame and something more. Elgar, for instance, at the beginning of his career and when quite unknown, sought recognition in the world of music by ballad-songs. He wrote a number to words by the lady who later became his wife. And why not? In the best examples of the ballad are to be found a fusion of genuine poetry with equally good music: two filling these conditions in every way are Balfe's Come into the garden, Maud and JL Hatton's To Anthea. But not all successful ballads touched so high a poetical plane, The children's home, for instance, being typical of the mawkish sentiment current at one time. This certainly justified the attacks made on the ballad by these who see nothing but beauty in German Lieder; but Cowen's music is not to he condemned because of its association with such words.

Looking back, one notes that the essentials of a successful ballad lyric were a good story with a moral, and this is only occasionally forthcoming. The composer who knew his job set it in the simplest manner, for it was understood that the published ballad must be available to singers and pianists of only average ability. There was no inherent harm in that, and the absence of such effusions has doubtless done much to throw our song-loving people down into the morass of the theme song. The ballad also had to be set within the compass of the octave. The composition of the art-song or German Lied is not governed by similar conditions; hence the condemnation of our ballad by comparison seems not to be justified. One is for the artist-singer, and the other for a people musical.

My opinion is that the ballad declined through the cultivation of false sentiment by the writers of lyrics, consequent largely upon over production. Gems of thought are only occasional, even in great minds. The result was that men who could write good and suitable music were not inspired, even to the height of the ballad. I do not think that the films or the talkies have had anything to do with the eclipse, partial or otherwise, of the ballad. People who sing theme songs would, in my opinion, sing better things, if only they were within their range and they had heard them sung at a time and place within their convenience. Witness the tempestuous applause that followed the singing of Sims Reeves ballads at a Hastings concert broadcast the other Sunday night. Let singers try the two songs I mentioned first above, and then Sullivan's The sailor's grave, and there need be no repining for the disappearance of the ballad.

  1. James Lyman Molloy (1837-1909), Irish lawyer, writer and amateur composer, Lord of Shiplake Manor, Deputy Lieutenant of the county of Oxford, and Chamberlain to Pope Leo XIII, prolific composer of songs of which The Kerry dance and Love's old sweet song are still remembered;
    Ciro Pinsuti (1829-88), pianist singing-teacher and composer, a pupil in London of Cipriani Potter and of Rossini in Bologna, taught in London and Newcastle and became professor at the RAM, wrote many popular songs;
    Jozsef Michal Xawery Franciszek Jan Poniatowski, Prince of Monte Rotondo, Polish tenor and composer (1816-73), born Rome, died Chislehurst, wrote operas, a Mass and many songs including the once-popular Yeoman’s wedding song;
    Marietta Piccolomini (1834-1899), Italian soprano popular in England - no article I have traced about her mentions that she composed, but the BBC Song catalogue lists ten songs by her including All in the hush of twilight and Crossing the bar;
    Stephen Adams (aka Michael Maybrick, 1844-1913), composer of The Holy City and other popular ballads. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1932, pp. 303–4