An archive and analysis of parlor and art song settings of Victorian poems

Balfe's "Maud": Sentimental and Subversive

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. Parlor 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.1 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. Of the eleven stanzas of the poem, he includes only five—the first two, the antepenultimate, and the last. These changes eliminate the account of the speaker's night in the garden, his discussions with the lily and the rose, and further descriptions of his surroundings. This excerpting focuses the song narrowly on the speaker's entreating Maud to join him. Balfe also excludes the final four lines of the poem, presumably to make the speaker appear less obviously unstable or to make the lyrics less risqué: he invokes the image of "earth in an earthy bed" (74) instead of the speaker's more graphic description of the blossoming corpse. The song then concludes with the adapted (unTennysonian) lines "Come my own my sweet, come my own my sweet. I am here at the gate alone." He also repeats the opening four lines of the song after the second verse to turn the song into a rondo pattern of ABACA, as Derek Scott has pointed out (Bourgeois 139). Balfe, like most other Victorian composers setting well-known poems to music, focuses on creating new music rather than on reflecting the original music of the verse. 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.

Balfe's setting of "Come into the Garden, Maud" was not the first; John Barnett appears to have that honor, composing his setting in 1856, while the composer Edward Clare wrote one in the same year as Balfe. Balfe's setting differs from its contemporaries in some vital ways, and a comparison with them helps clarify his interpretation of the text. Whereas Barnett's setting preserves Tennyson's original iambic opening by placing the word "into" on the downbeat (as John Blockley also does in 1860), Balfe instead emphasizes the first word, "come." Although Balfe's setting does repeat phrases for dramatic effect, this tendency occurs less frequently in his setting than in the other two: Barnett's setting repeats the phrase "and die" three times, "my dust would hear her and beat" four times, and "would blossom in purple and red" five times, making repetition not so much a theme as a type of ornamentation. Balfe's most important departure from his predecessors occurs in his rapid harmonic changes; whereas the other settings primarily stay in the original key and use traditional progressions, his setting constantly shifts its tonal center, and this harmonic deviation constitutes a commentary on the poem. Like the poem, Balfe's setting initially seems to emphasize a domestic, sentimental quality. It is in a major key and has a gracefully lilting melody (measures 1–11)[], and its repetition and ornamentation adhere to the generic conventions of the parlour song: the singer repeats the phrase "I am here at the gate alone," as well as words and phrases such as "come" or "shine out" to dramatize the speaker's desperation. Balfe also wrote a fermata over the word "gate" to indicate the speaker's passion and attempts to restrain himself. In the verse that alludes to Song of Solomon 2.1 to convey the speaker's belief in his beloved's transcendent beauty and in the Biblical perfection of their love, the music is marked dolce ("sweet”) and pianissimo ("very quiet”), directions that when coupled with the harp-like arpeggios in the accompaniment, appear to render this section as the idyllic garden that the Song of Solomon describes.

In the final verse, the speaker breathlessly expresses his excitement at Maud's arrival, the anapests echoing his pounding heart:

She is coming, my own, my sweet;
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed. (68–71)

Balfe's setting performs the speaker's emotions through a sequence of dissonances followed by resolution (measures 72–81)[]. This pattern, marked accelerando, creates the sense of excitement and forward momentum the speaker feels, and the setting ends on a triumphant cadence that expresses joy at the lovers' impending union.

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. Although initially the song sounds like a happy, perhaps even sappy, traditional love song, with its major key and gracefully lilting melody (measures 1-11)[], the harmonic deviations begin immediately after the first chorus. When the singer begins to describe the "woodbine spices" that are "wafted abroad," the music suddenly shifts from a tonal center of D major (the primary key of the piece) to a new key—G major—and acoustically separates these lines from the ones before (measures 17-21)[]. This shift occurs during the allusion to the Song of Solomon and musically enacts the speaker's desire to imaginatively transform this English garden into an idyllic paradise. This musical gesture also critiques the speaker, as it shows the speaker's willingness to cast himself and his surroundings as Biblical figures; the music has become elevated by a fourth to emphasize the speaker's artificial elevation of his situation. The song again shifts to a new tonal center for the lines describing Venus. As one might expect, the melody line rises on "is on high" (measures 23-25)[], a classic example of word-painting in which the music performs the action the text describes. Balfe harmonically undercuts that transcendence, however, by having the accompaniment loudly play a series of E minor chords (measure 25)[]. The next few measures stay in this new tonal center, and the melancholy sound serves to counter the speaker's confidence that Love has ascended and to emphasize the contradiction in the speaker's claim that love is paramount and that love will fade with the sunrise.2 After returning briefly to D major, the harmony suddenly shifts to B minor when the singer describes Venus' "fainting." This tonicization creates a melancholy sound even though the planet's fading means that Maud will arrive (measures 29-33)[]. Since the Victorian music theory manuals explain that modulations and tonicizations should be used "but sparingly, [ . . .] for striking effects" (Oxford and Cambridge V 61), these migrant tonicizations undermine our sense of tonal stability (and thereby our confidence in the speaker). The music wrenches itself back to the opening theme via half steps (measures 34-36)[] rather than by a perfect cadence, which would convey "a satisfying reposeful expression" (Oxford and Cambridge I 22). This 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. The song's rondo structure and return to previous material emulate the speaker's own obsessive return to the same expressions and rhymes, while the unexpected harmony enacts the speaker's unreliability. The music abruptly modulates from D-major to B-flat major without any preparation; one might expect this unprepared tonal shift to support the speaker's claim of transcendence, as though this garden so resembles Eden that rules of harmony no longer apply, but a subtle pedal point in the accompaniment complicates this interpretation. By sustaining this note in the bass line while the chords change above it, Balfe produces an insistent but subtle dissonance (measures 53-63)[], which is considered "a musical expression of unrest" (Oxford and Cambridge I 72). 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. Although the final verse's repeated pattern of dissonance and resolution does enact the speaker's anxiety and excitement at Maud's approach, as mentioned earlier, it also functions as one final critique of the speaker's thoughts. This pattern, coupled with the dramatic chromaticism on "Maud, Maud, come" (measures 86–87)[], counteracts the idea that her arrival will provide the speaker with the transcendence he desires, even though the final chords sound triumphant. 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.

Works Cited

Barnett, John. "Come into the Garden, Maud: The Invitation." London: Leader & Cock, 1856.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, King James Version.

New York: American Bible Society: 1999.s

Blockley, John. "Come into the Garden, Maud: Serenade." London: Framer, Beale & Co, 1860.

Burton, Nigel. "Balfe, Michael William." Grove Music Online. Web. 23 November 2011.

Clare, Edward. Come into the Garden, Maud: Favorite Serenade. London: Charles Holdernesse & Co, 1857.

The Oxford and Cambridge Theory of Music: V. I: The Elements of Musical Theory and the Rudiments of Harmony. London: George Gill and Sons, 1887?

The Oxford and Cambridge Theory of Music. V. II: The Essentials of Harmony, The Rudiments of Musical Form, and an Outline of Musical History. London: George Gill and Sons, 1887.

Parker, J.C.D. Come into the Garden, Maud. London: Musical Bouquet, nd.

Scott, Derek B. The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour. 2nd ed. Burlington: Ashgate, 2001.

---. Sounds of the Metropolis: The Nineteenth-Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Stanford, Charles Villiers. Musical Composition: A Short Treatise for Students. New York: MacMillan Company, 1911.

Tennyson, Alfred. Maud. The Poems of Tennyson. ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longman Group, 1969: 1075-1078.