Gabriel Fauré

Ballade in F# major

Op. 19

About this work

The two versions of Fauré's Ballade -- the first for solo piano, the second for piano and orchestra -- have very few bar-to-bar discrepancies, but their effects are quite different. The solo version, using Chopin's Ballades as its obvious model, is thick, large-scaled, and passionate; the concerto version, by redistributing the thematic and harmonic strands, seems leaner and more elegant. Fauré showed an early version of the solo Ballade to Franz Liszt in 1877; the older composer played part of it, then asked Fauré to finish, saying, "I have no more fingers." The writing is elaborate and formidably difficult in the solo version. The more accessible version with orchestra, which the composer premiered with Edouard Colonne's orchestra in 1881, is no longer a display of virtuosity; this version seems more relaxed, even prettier. Debussy caustically dismissed it as overly charming and effeminate. The Ballade enjoys a very free form -- "somewhat outside what is usually done," in the composer's admission -- but essentially falls into three initial sections, each developing its own theme, followed by a fourth section that combines the second and third themes. In the version with orchestra, Fauré added a bar just before the flute solo that hints at the third theme, thus now incorporating some form of all the thematic material into the work's first 40 bars. The opening Andante cantabile, in F sharp major, introduces the A theme, a lyrical melody over a gently palpitating left-hand accompaniment, with the orchestra delicately supporting and answering the piano's phrases. The piano part soon becomes more declamatory and intense, but then relaxes into the sorts of arpeggios and runs that the score's detractors deemed too frivolously decorative. Some unsettling modulations lead to the E flat minor Allegretto section, dominated by the B theme. This decadent, falling motif is more impetuous (by Fauré's gentle standards) and sends the pianist into long passages of runs and trills. The harmony brightens to B major for the Allegro section (framed by two short Andante interludes), which centers on the rocking and trilling C theme. The final section, Allegro molto moderato, returns to the opening tonality of F sharp major and gracefully intertwines the second and third themes with busy, sparkling piano writing. Fauré eschews a bravura ending, wrapping up the Ballade with a few quiet, arpeggiated flourishes.