The balanced sentimentality of Grieg’s Ballade

How do we differentiate a work of art in good taste from kitsch? We are mostly able to classify a work as either one or the other, but often we find it hard to put our finger on which variables make for either good taste or kitsch. Moreover, in the absence of empirical evidence, the issue of taste remains somewhat of a grey area. Often, what arouses suspicions of kitsch is an overabundance of sentimentality, poured out gratuitously by the composer (or writer, or painter) without “demanding anything in return” from the listener. (Oscar Wilde pithily summarized this concept by saying that sentimentality is “wanting to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”). Sure, Beethoven gives us many moments of intense satisfaction, but he (mostly) makes us mentally “work our way” towards it. Likewise, great writers and painters have avoided  in many different ways the unwanted effect of unchecked sentimentality. Even though Knut Hamsun’s sumptuous evocations of country life and Renoir’s scenes depicting blushing figures inside various salons are highly personal, one does not feel “violated” by an overdose of affectedness. Going back to music, a good example of where, in my opinion, the virtues of good taste are violated, is Mahler’s Adagietto from the fifth symphony. 

Grieg’s Ballade in G minor, Op. 24 (or in its longer name, Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song) abounds with sweetness and lyricism, as one generally would expect from Grieg. The first two variations, and later, the salon-like Un poco Andante variation, almost seem to have crossed the threshold of good taste—that is, if they are heard out of context. 

In a number of earlier entries, I spoke about the “shock effect” in music and how it needs to be balanced with more conventional writing to be effective. The great rule-breakers among composers understood this concept and adhered to it. What is true for “radical” music is also true for the excessively pleasing. Grieg most certainly understood the importance of balance: not only does he balance the dainty variations with more mercurial music, but he does it in a fascinating and masterful way. 

The variation marked Un poco allegro e alla burla leads into an extended coda (made up of a few codas) that culminates in a triumphant entrance of the original theme in G major, followed by a contrasting unravelling of despair and tumult, bringing the whole work to a close with the somber original minor theme. Before that unravelling begins, however, with the Allegro furioso and the key change back to minor, we are under the illusion that the work will end grandiosely in major, as the entrance in major is preceded by music of heroic determination, reminiscent of the build-up at the end of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony. But to justify that determination, the preceding variations must set up an appropriate narrative. That’s where Grieg’s mastery comes in. 

Save for some variations that quite naturally lead into each other, the variations are for the most part vignettes encapsulating a certain character or musical pattern. Although it would be easy for a composer to entrench each variation in its “initial” character, Grieg bestowed on each variation a wonderful sense of inner variety and contrast—the supple variations still have some jaggedness, and vice versa. Consider the aforementioned Un poco Andante: even in an almost saccharine variation, the harmonic and pianistic writing towards the end is on the verge of being even slightly threatening. The same is true in the funereal variation before it, a near-exact repeat of the theme, with the sublime contrast of dolcissimo in the middle section in major.   These inner contrasts allow Grieg to take a basic idea and magnify it over the course of the expansive ending of this great work. If I were to slightly contradict myself, everything from the Un poco allegro e alla burla variation till the end can be seen as one string of finishing sections. Because of the dynamic of contrast that Grieg has set up in the previous variations, he is able to jump back and forth in the long succession of endings and keep the tension without ever handing any emotion gratuitously. Here we see the difference between kitsch and a great work of art. 

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