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Ballades, Op. 10

October 14, 2018: Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Brahms composed the Four Ballades, op. 10, in the summer of 1854, an emotionally charged time for the young composer. He was staying in Düsseldorf to help Clara Schumann and her children following her husband Robert’s suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization. Brahms served as go-between for husband and wife, whom doctors kept apart, and he anguished over his friend and mentor’s dark periods while his own feelings for Clara deepened. Making music in both senses—playing and composing—was a natural outlet. This period saw Brahms working on turning a projected two-piano sonata into a symphony (later reworked as the D minor Piano Concerto), responding to Clara’s Variations on a theme by Robert by composing a set of his own on the same theme, and beginning the set of Ballades, op. 10.

The Ballades mark Brahms’s abandoning of the more weighty sonata form in his piano music and his first venture into the realm of the short character piece, to which he would return with such eloquence toward the end of his career. Though Chopin’s substantial Ballades may have been in the back of Brahms’s mind, his own were more influenced by the tradition of vocal settings of narrative poetry. As Brahms’s inscription reveals, his Ballade No. 1 was composed “after the old Scottish ballad Edward, in Herder’s Stimmen der Völker” (Voices of the people). The Scottish ballads in Herder’s translation had been introduced to him by his new friend Julius Allgeyer, who was studying copperplate engraving in Düsseldorf.

Brahms’s wordless piece reflects the ballad’s dialogue form to a certain extent and even fits some of the text itself, though he allowed himself the freedom to create an effective “tone poem.” (His later alto-tenor duet, op. 75, no. 1, demonstrates that he could set the text exactly and that the ballad continued to fascinate him.) The mother’s questions and Edward’s answers reveal that he has killed his father, her husband, ending with the shocking revelation that he has done so at her urging. In this Ballade Brahms has artfully molded the “dialogue” into a ternary form—his preferred Ballade form—in which the developmental middle section gains in intensity, abetted by a relentless “fateful” triplet figure. The return to the opening theme with its judicious alterations allows him to conclude with chilling effect.

No such overt poetic references apply to the remaining three Ballades, though we are frequently tantalized by hints of underlying inspiration. In Ballade No. 2, serene, tuneful outer sections frame a fast central section, itself in two parts—one of angry character and one of lighter but still intense demeanor.

If Ballade No. 2 corresponds vaguely to a “slow moment” in this set of four pieces, then Ballade No. 3 can be considered the “scherzo,” despite the fact that the subtitle “Intermezzo” elsewhere in Brahms refers to slower, more introspective pieces. In one of Schumann’s coherent phases he called this Ballade “demonic,” no doubt referring to its opening character. The “trio” or central section stands out for its ethereal high range and its concluding contrast of high and low.

Nowhere is the spirit of Schumann more present than in the textures of the final Ballade, in which the opening melody is spun out over descending broken chords, or where the melody of its slower central section is transferred to an inner voice and surrounded by chordal figuration. It is noteworthy that Brahms calls for this introspective section to be played “with most intimate feeling, but without overly marking the melody” (col intimissimo sentimento, ma senza troppo marcare la melodia), warning the overzealous interpreter not to subjugate his delicate filigree to mere background murmur. Brahms felt free enough with the form of his concluding Ballade to include a new chordal section after the return of the opening, followed by an altered return to the “intimate” music.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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