The Music of “The Ballad of Baby Doe”

by S. Kay Hoke, Musicologist and Deborah Morrow

Douglas Moore, American composer, educator, and author

Douglas Moore, American composer, educator, and author

The story of the opera is drawn from the history of the American West, and its principal characters are people who lived in Colorado more than a century ago. The use of the term “ballad” in the title prepares us for a certain musical simplicity. The score contrives to emphasize a period-piece atmosphere and is thus filled with music in the popular style of its time—waltzes, marches, parlor songs, rowdy tunes to suggest the flavor of a mining town and, later, boisterous ones for a political campaign. It is above all a singers’ piece. The well-crafted melodies, dramatic tension created by the love triangle, and the spectacle of production numbers that would be at home on Broadway make for a compelling, entertaining, and truly American opera.

Moore’s music makes a sharp delineation between the principal female characters, the two Mrs. Tabors. Baby Doe is a soprano whose music has a placid charm and easy songfulness with short flurries of coloratura. Augusta, a mezzo-soprano, often sings in jagged melodies and unexpected rhythms. Horace, a baritone, is characterized by his poetic colloquialism.

Douglas Moore, the American composer born in 1893, headed the music school at Columbia University in the 1940s and ‘50s. He was a champion of American opera and was himself most interested in writing operas and instrumental works about American historical figures and literature. In addition to The Ballad of Baby Doe he composed pieces about or inspired by Daniel Webster, P.T. Barnum, the fictional Headless Horseman of Washington Irving, settlers of the Dakota prairies (Giants in the Earth for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), Henry James’ Wings of the Dove and Carrie Nation. His music, though always original, frequently reflected the sounds of folk and/or popular music of the times of his subjects. John LaTouche, the librettist for Baby Doe, was a young, successful playwright and lyricist who tragically died soon after Baby Doe premiered.

 

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