*“Balfe’s “Maud”: Sentimental and Subversive”

Image: (Wikipedia): “Tennyson Down is a hill at the west end of the Isle of Wight just south of Totland. Tennyson Down is a grassy, whale-backed ridge of chalk which rises to 482 ft/147m above sea level. Tennyson Down is named after the poet Lord Tennyson who lived at nearby Farringford House for nearly 40 years. The poet used to walk on the down almost every day, saying that the air was worth ‘sixpence a pint’.”

Joanna Swafford writes at Songs of the Victorians:

*”Michael William Balfe (1808-1870) was an Irish composer and singer best known for his English operatic works, such as Bohemian Girl, and his parlor songs (Burton), the most famous of which was his setting of Tennyson’s Maud. Parlour songs, also known as drawing-room ballads, encompassed many different styles designed for performance in the middle-class home, but were considered “a woman’s pastime,” and therefore not worthy of careful study (Scott, Bourgeois, 51), a bias that still haunts their study today. Balfe’s setting of Tennyson’s Maud is considered an exemplar of the genre, and has received both praise and scorn for its popularity and perceived sentimentality. Although the piece can be played to sound like a naive love song, its dissonances, unexpected harmonies, and constantly shifting tonal centers subtly undercut the speaker’s sense of certainty and sanity, as does the text itself, making the song, like the poem, both participate in and disrupt the sentimental tradition.

Balfe’s setting makes some significant changes to Tennyson’s original text while remaining true to its spirit…Although he frequently preserves line breaks, he does not try to find a musical equivalence for rhyme or attempt to highlight the repeated words or assonances, alliteration, or consonance by using the same musical phrase or notes to suggest a similarity. Neither does he preserve the metrical alternations between trimeter and pentameter: Balfe instead composed his piece in a 4/4 time signature by allotting a beat of silence or holding a note for an extra beat at the end of each line with three feet. The effect reduces the dance-like quality, perhaps because the song occurs after the dance music inside the Hall has ceased…

Even the circumstances in which this song would be performed emphasize a sentimental interpretation: as Derek Scott has observed, parlor songs, also known as drawing-room ballads, encompassed many different styles designed for performance in the middle-class home. They were frequently dismissed as sentimental because of their focus on love, gardens, and other such domestic themes (Metropolis 65). As the piano became the “pre-eminent bourgeois instrument,” its appearance in parlors became a necessity, and playing piano and singing became vital accomplishments whereby young women could prove their marriageability (Metropolis 30).

…Behind the veil of propriety, however, lies a more sinister subtext. The song gives voice to the speaker’s insanity and violent tendencies and his repetitive, obsessive speech through harmonic instability…(the) drawn-out, hesitant transition to the opening theme casts the speaker as anything but a confident, innocent troubadour.

Balfe further shows the speaker’s dangerous tendencies by translating his obsessive nature into musical terms through repetition and dissonance…Because the section has been marked pianissimo, this dissonance can be hard to hear, and, in fact, a performer who prefers the song’s sentimental interpretation—-rather like anthologists who have seized on Tennyson’s poem without due consideration of its provenance—-can play it so quietly that it sounds consonant and cloaks the speaker’s instability…

The song’s concluding gesture likewise contradicts the speaker’s claims…In sum: although the piece can be played to sound like a naïve love song, its dissonances, unexpected harmonies, and constantly shifting tonal centers subtly undercut the speaker’s sense of certainty and sanity, as does the text itself…

The song thus becomes available to performance, and indeed to cultural analysis, on several levels. Because parlor songs frequently address love, gardens, and the sentimental, Balfe’s setting seems to fit neatly into the stereotype of that category; the straight-forward accompaniment and simplified lyrics enable a performer to turn the song into the romantic serenade the poem’s speaker desires it to be. But this song also resists such easy classification through unexpected harmonization. The song’s ability to function in both registers—the domestic and the disruptive—actually brings it closer to its source text, as it reflects the speaker’s own fluctuation between the two.”

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