Notes on Ballad #5 ("It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad")

Ballad #5 ("It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad") is a 1997 (revised 2004) adaptation for solo piano of A Long Time Man, for orchestra with piano, which was written in the fall of 1979 as a commission for the New Hampshire Symphony, and was first performed by that orchestra in the spring of the following year under the direction of James Bolle, with the composer as soloist. The piece is a series of 24 variations on a work song from Texas prisons, with an improvised cadenza between variations 15 and 16.

The theme is the song of the "long time man" (a prisoner serving a life term):

It makes a long time man feel bad
It makes a long time man feel bad
He don't get no letters
He can't hear from home
It makes a long time man feel bad

The first nine variations, written in a kind of poly- or trans-tonal style similar to that of the North American Ballads for solo piano, develop the theme in a fast-changing collage of bits and snatches of the tune which appear and disappear, in different keys and at different speeds. In Variation 10 a new, slow time suddenly sets in, lasting through Variation 15, and followed by an improvisation. At the end of the cadenza Variation 16 takes up the thematic material again in a manner similar to the beginning: a beginning that now seems to have happened a long time ago. Variation 17 evokes the slow time of Variations 10 - 15. Variation 18 is a written-out cadenza. In Variations 19 through 24 time slows down again and comes to a stop. The theme is played softly in many different keys at once, fades away. We hear the first two notes of the tune, and the music is over.

2011-02-13, Christian Mondrup, Werner Icking Music Archive