Thursday 2 May 2024

The Ballad of the Nipple: Paul Alan Barker's seven melodramas for piano

Melodrama as a dramatic musical genre has a somewhat patchy history. Whilst Mozart would say of Georg Benda's melodramas 'I love these two works so much that I carry them with me', and indeed works like Benda's Medea [recorded in 2021 by Cappella Aquileia on Coviello Classics, see my review] influenced Mozart's use of speech with music. Melodrama as a tool in the opera composers armoury does pop up, but the exploration of simple speech with music is still relatively rare. The development of post-War music-theatre works has meant that contemporary composers shy away from it rather less. 

Paul Alan Barker is a composer of dance, theatre, musicals, opera and more with over 13 operas to his name. He is also a writer and his first novel, The Ferry Inn, was recently published. So it comes as no surprise to find him interested in the combination of speech and music. As far back as 1980 he wrote The Pied Piper of Hamelin for narrator and piano, and in 2015 came Of Zoe and the Woman I sing, described as 'A melodrama for actress Zoe Lister, her avatar and pianist'. 

Less overtly dramatic but rather intriguing is The Ballad of the Nipple 'Seven melodramas for Piano' which take Barker's own words and apply music to them, designed for a single pianist able to speak, they can also be performed as melodramas with an actor. The sequence begins with Lemon Scented Blues, 'A fairy tale with a moral' and ends with the title piece, The Ballad of the Nipple, originally written after a tabloid magazine published a clandestine photo of a Royal nipple!

The results are compact and amusing, with cabaret hints yet with claws. The good news is that Barker has recorded them himself, speaking and playing, and the results are available as a playlist on YouTube.

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