The term ballad seems to have begun in the 15th century to denote a narrative poem or song, and had some common link with the words “ball” and “ballet”. It had short stanzas, with a recurring tune when put to music. An English form of madrigal, the “ballett”, also harks to this theme of linking story and dance. It tended to be mainly a British tradition, but some use was made of it in other northern European parts.
By the 17th century the “street ballad” – or “broadside ballad”, from the distribution of large sheets containing the words to these songs – was popular. (The tune of one of these has come down to us through the hymn tune, “Monk’s Gate” (“He who would valiant be let him come hither”) which was adapted and arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams when editing the 1906 English Hymnal and has spread from there.)
The 18th century brought the “ballad opera”, where popular songs of the time were arranged and staged - within a storyline that satirised social and political conventions of the day and parodied “grand” opera. “The Beggars Opera” written and produced by John Gay and John Rich is the only one of these still performed and recorded today. (It is said to have “made Gay rich and Rich gay.”) The form was reprised in 1924 when a ballad opera “Hugh the Drover”, written by Vaughan Williams, was performed. It is still performed and is on CD today.
The 19th century brought the ballad into the realm of high art, with the genius of Schubert in song and Chopin at the piano giving it new life and form. Chopin took the spirit of the original ballad - its narrative, occasionally heroic or bathetic, form and morphed it into pure music. Other of the great composers used the term – Brahms admitted the link with the old original form by naming the first of his Four Ballads Opus 10, “Edward” after one of the Scottish verse-ballads.
The term came back to earth in about the middle of the 19th century. It was taken up to describe certain sentimental popular songs and is still used today in this manner in popular music. At the same time the English were introducing the “drawing room ballad”, once again a sentimental, patriotic or quasi-religious tune – often to poetry of the time - sung quite often with more gusto than skill with piano accompaniment in the parlours and drawing rooms of the English (and American) gentry.