Classical music, for all its beauty, has always had a violent streak, whether in the plots of operas, as inspiration for the music, or on rare occasions, in the concert hall. But an arresting new release on Albany Records makes no bones about the music within. Sporting a stylized illustration of a woman holding a bloody knife, the album's title reads in block letters, “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads.” (It's my favorite classical album cover of the year.)
Like many composers before him, John Allemeier turned to folk song for inspiration for his latest set of chamber music. The three selections on this album are all based on murder ballads of the 19th century, and real stories at that. There’s Peter DeGraff, who lured his lover Ellen Smith into the woods where he shot her in cold blood (and was later hanged for the crime). Frankie Silver, who murdered her husband Charlie with an ax in 1831, is represented by “Pieces of Silver,” and “Deep Water” is about the drowning of Omie Wise at the hands of Jon Lewis in 1807.
Percussive movements where urgent melodies struggle up and down the scale to break free are the hallmarks of both “Deep Water (Omie Wise)” and “Pieces of Silver,” though both also feature plaintive movements of release and, perhaps, sweet death. The former bookends its four movements nicely with a solo piano line that represents Omie’s watery grave.
My favorite of the works on the disc is “Poor Ellen,” written for string quartet. Here, the Appalachian roots of the music are highlighted by a close hew to the melody of the original ballad, and an almost folk-like step. This is brilliant, bloody music.
The liner notes to the compact disc deserve special notice as well. UNC-Charlotte professor James Grymes does a great job of not only analyzing the music, but recounting the real North Carolina history behind the crimes that inspired the folk ballads of “Deep Water.” Available on CD or as an MP3 download.
See composer John Allemeier talk about "Poor Ellen" in the video below:
Here's a performance of the original folk ballad "Poor Ellen Smith" by North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell: