Definitions

ballad

ballad

[bal-uhd]
ballad, in literature, short, narrative poem usually relating a single, dramatic event. Two forms of the ballad are often distinguished—the folk ballad, dating from about the 12th cent., and the literary ballad, dating from the late 18th cent.

The Folk Ballad

The anonymous folk ballad (or popular ballad), was composed to be sung. It was passed along orally from singer to singer, from generation to generation, and from one region to another. During this progression a particular ballad would undergo many changes in both words and tune. The medieval or Elizabethan ballad that appears in print today is probably only one version of many variant forms.

Primarily based on an older legend or romance, this type of ballad is usually a short, simple song that tells a dramatic story through dialogue and action, briefly alluding to what has gone before and devoting little attention to depth of character, setting, or moral commentary. It uses simple language, an economy of words, dramatic contrasts, epithets, set phrases, and frequently a stock refrain. The familiar stanza form is four lines, with four or three stresses alternating and with the second and fourth lines rhyming. For example:

It was ín and abóut the Mártinmas tíme,
  When the gréen léaves were a fálling,
That Sír John Gráeme, in the Wést Countrý,
  Fell in lóve with Bárbara Állan
"Bonny Barbara Allan"

It was in the 18th cent. that the term ballad was used in England in its present sense. Scholarly interest in the folk ballad, first aroused by Bishop Percyy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), was significantly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Francis Child's collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 vol., 1882-98), marked the high point of 19th-century ballad scholarship.

More than 300 English and Scottish folk ballads, dating from the 12th to the 16th cent., are extant. Although the subject matter varies considerably, five major classes of the ballad can be distinguished—the historical, such as "Otterburn" and "The Bonny Earl o' Moray"; the romantic, such as "Barbara Allan" and "The Douglas Tragedy"; the supernatural, such as "The Wife of Usher's Well"; the nautical, such as "Henry Martin"; and the deeds of folk heroes, such as the Robin Hood cycle.

Ballads, however, cannot be confined to any one period or place; similar subject matter appears in the ballads of other peoples. Indigenous American ballads deal mainly with cowboys, folk heroes such as Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan, the mountain folk of Kentucky and Tennessee, the Southern black, and famous outlaws, such as Jesse James:

Jésse had a wífe to móurn for his lífe,
  Three chíldren, théy were bráve;
But the dírty little cóward that shót Mister Hóward
  Has láid Jesse Jámes in his gráve.
"Ballad of Jesse James"

During the mid-20th cent. in the United States there was a great resurgence of interest in folk music, particularly in ballads. Singers such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger included ballads like "Bonny Barbara Allan" and "Mary Hamilton" in their concert repertoires; composer-performers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan wrote their own ballads.

The Literary Ballad

The literary ballad is a narrative poem created by a poet in imitation of the old anonymous folk ballad. Usually the literary ballad is more elaborate and complex; the poet may retain only some of the devices and conventions of the older verse narrative. Literary ballads were quite popular in England during the 19th cent. Examples of the form are found in Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." In music a ballad refers to a simple, often sentimental, song, not usually a folk song.

Bibliography

See D. C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (1968); B. H. Bronson, The Ballad as Song (1969); J. Kinsley, ed., The Oxford Book of Ballads (1982); A. B. Friedman, ed., The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (1982).

English 18th-century comic opera in which songs and musical interludes, usually consisting of existing popular tunes or opera melodies with new words, are interspersed with spoken dialogue. The first ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera (1728), by John Gay and J.C. Pepusch (1667–1752), was a sharply satirical work that became wildly popular and led to numerous similar works. Ballad opera led directly to the German singspiel and can be seen as the source of the modern musical.

Learn more about ballad opera with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Form of short narrative folk song. Its distinctive style crystallized in Europe in the late Middle Ages as part of the oral tradition, and it has been preserved as a musical and literary form. The oral form has persisted as the folk ballad, and the written, literary ballad evolved from the oral tradition. The folk ballad typically tells a compact tale with deliberate starkness, using devices such as repetition to heighten effects. The modern literary ballad (e.g., those by W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, and Elizabeth Bishop) recalls in its rhythmic and narrative elements the traditions of folk balladry.

Learn more about ballad with a free trial on Britannica.com.

A ballad is a poem usually set to music; thus, it often is a story told in a song. Any myth form may be told as a ballad, such as historical accounts or fairy tales in verse form. It usually has foreshortened, alternating four-stress lines ("ballad meter") and simple repeating rhymes, often with a refrain.

If it is based on a political or religious theme, a ballad may be a hymn. It should not be confused with the ballade, a 14th and 15th century French verse form.

Broadside ballads

Broadsheet ballads (also known as broadside ballads) were cheaply printed and hawked in English streets from the sixteenth century. They were often topical, humorous, and even subversive; the legends of Robin Hood and the pranks of Puck were disseminated through broadsheet ballads.

New ballads were written about current events like fires, the birth of monstrous animals, and so forth, giving particulars of names and places. Satirical ballads and Royalist ballads contributed to 17th century political discourse. In a sense, these ballads were antecedents of the modern newspaper.

Thomas Percy, Robert Harley, Francis James Child, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg were early collectors and publishers of ballads from the oral tradition, broadsheets and previous anthologies. Percy's publication of Reliques of Ancient Poetry and Harley's collections, such as The Bagford Ballads, were of great import in beginning the study of ballads.

Literary ballads

Literary ballads are those composed and written formally. The form, with its connotations of simple folkloric authenticity, became popular with the rise of Romanticism in the late 18th century, though there are precedents for this kind of literary attraction to ballad in earlier literature, such as the 15th century pastourelle Robene and Makyne. Literary ballads may be set to music. Schubert's Der Erlkönig and The Hostage, set literary ballads by Goethe (see also Der Zauberlehrling) and Schiller. In Romantic opera a ballad set into the musical texture may emphasize or play against the theatrical moment. Atmospheric ballads in operas were initiated in Weber's Der Freischütz and include Senta's ballad in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, or the 'old song' 'Salce' Desdemona sings in Verdi's Otello. Compare the stanza-like structure and narrative atmosphere of the musical Ballades for solo piano of Chopin or Brahms.

Ballad opera

A particularly English form, the ballad opera, has as its most famous example John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which inspired the 20th-century cabaret operas of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (q.v.). Ballad strophes usually alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, though this is not always the case.

Popular song

In the 20th Century, "ballad" took on the meaning of a popular song "especially of a romantic or sentimental nature" (American Heritage Dictionary). Casting directors often divide songs into two categories: "ballads" (slower or sentimental songs) and "up" tunes (faster or happier songs). A power ballad is a love song delivered with power often using rock instruments.

Famous ballads

Traditional

Modern

See also

External links

Search another word or see balladon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature
FAVORITES
RECENT

;