Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Storytelling Through Music

I love a good story.  It transports the imagination to pretty much anywhere.

I have gone to storytelling festivals and have taken some lessons in storytelling.  It can be magical.

Storytelling has been a part of music making for centuries.

Two forms come to mind as I think of storytelling in music: ballads and program music.


Simply put, a ballad is a song that tells a story.

It is a centuries-old genre of vocal music. 

Ballads were typically sung by a solo singer and occasionally might be accompanied by some sort of instrument.

Through ballads, news, both current and historical, was shared in towns and villages.

Often the ballad would tell of a folk legend, about the death or injury of someone, about a tragedy, about the actions of pretty much anyone.  It might tell of an event or a celebration. It might tell a funny story that happened.

In olden times those who sang/shared ballads were often travelers.  They would hear of a story in one place and while on the road to the next location they would create a song - a ballad - about that story. 

These songs were then shared in the new location where the traveler would learn of something new and the process would begin again as he continued on his journey.

Ballads were, and still are, shared through oral tradition.  Oral tradition is the passing on of songs - in this case, ballads - through oral tradition from one person to another and from one generation to another.

Ballads often have many, MANY verses. It is not uncommon to see some old ballads with 10, 20, 30+ verses.  The number of verses comes about because of how the song is transferred through oral tradition. The singer may alter an existing verse, create a new one (when he might forget the real one and had to fill the space in the song), or delete a verse. In this way a ballad takes on a life of its own, ever changing in the musical continuum.

Ballads that come to mind: "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, O," "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," "Mama Buy Me A Chiney Doll."  More recent one (old, but not centuries old): "Puff, the Magic Dragon"


Program music is instrumental music that is associated with a story, poem, idea, or scene. Like the ballad, program music tells a story; however, unlike the ballad, program music tells the story through instruments only.

Like the ballad, program music has been around for centuries, but the genre really came into its own during the Romantic period of music.  The time period for this is 1820-1900.

Composers would write a work and through the music express an experience, rather than describe something.  In order to convey this experience to the musician and the listener the composer not only used the actual music, but he would also include some sort of descriptive statement in the music and/or score.  This might be in a paragraph describing the inspiration for the work or simply by descriptive titles placed before each movement.

To my memory, my first experience with program music was in high school during a music history class.  My teacher played Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal's Cave, 1830). Prior to listening to the work he asked us to write about what we were hearing. I recall writing some farfetched story (luckily I seem to have misplaced it).

More recently I have listened to Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (1830) which tells a story in a symphony through 5 movements.  (This in itself is an expansion of the traditional 4-movement symphony of the Classical period.) The story is quite fantastic (hence, "fantastique") - it has been described as having "opium-fuelled obsessions, flower-like dancers, rural idyll, rolling tumbrel and danse macabre."

Today it was the Smetana's idyllic The Moldau (1875) - a description/expression of his experience whilst floating down a river - how it began as two streams and grew into a river - observing on the shore a hunting party, further down a peasant wedding, then water nymphs gliding about in the moonlight, then the startling rapids, finally calming as the river widens near an ancient castle.


The music is like a good story - it transports you.

Enjoy the journey.

Or better yet,

Enjoy your musical sojourn! :)

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