Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) wrote his Ballada for piano in 1879. In 1881, he adapted it for piano and orchestra. He dedicated this composition to his former teacher Saint-Saëns. Fauré premiered the orchestrated version in Paris, but the critics gave it a chilly reception, calling it confused and obscure. These days, the Ballada seems one of the most important of all French piano works. We certainly shouldn't be too hard on the contemporary critics. What is unmistakably French (veiled lyricism, ease, elegance) in this relatively early Fauré composition was not conspicuous to his fellow countrymen, who above all sensed its German Romantic roots. Fauré first travelled to German speaking lands in 1877, accompanied to Weimar by Saint-Saëns where Saint-Saëns's opera Samson et Dalila was being receiving its local premiere. Saint-Saëns introduced Fauré to Liszt, and a year later, Fauré travelled to Cologne to hear a performance of Rheingeld and Die Walkyre. In 1879, the year he composed the Ballada, Fauré also heard a complete Ring cycle in Munich. Like so many other French musicians of his era, he found it hard to escape the influence of Wagner and Liszt. When he went to Beyreuth for Parsifal in 1882, he wrote in a letter: “You have heard nothing until you have heard Wagner in Beyreuth!” In 1882, he was again in the company of Saint-Saëns when he encountered Liszt a second time and showed him the Ballada. He feared it was too long but Liszt reassured him “That is impossible if you have written what you truly feel.” Fauré recalled Liszt sitting at the piano to sight read it. “After five or six pages, Liszt stopped, saying he had run out of fingers and asked me to continue, which rather unnerved me.” Liszt was being neither polite nor falsely modest. Fauré's characteristic piano writing diverged from Liszt's, who knew this style well but believed that it was Saint-Saëns's pupils who were most capable of employing it.
The formal concept for the Ballada is close to Liszt's B minor sonata. (which Schumann also felt was confused, as did French critics.) In this single movement, a number of formal sections are condensed and the various themes can all be linked to a single musical idea, developed using Liszt's characteristic thematic transformational technique. Fauré said this of the form: “In a single movement, three movements are actually heard.”