With his Ballade (Ballad) the French politician, poet and novel writer Charles Daniélou (1878-1953) strongly protested against the closure of cloisters in his country in 1902 – a drastic event that had also shocked Diepenbrock. The day after the publication of the poem in the newspaper La Libre Parole of 25 June 1903, he wrote his very first protest song on the verses by Daniélou. (During the First World War he was to write several others; see RC 122, 123, 131 and 134.)
The confiscation of the cloisters by the state and the expulsion of the monks were the final acts in the fierce anticlerical politics that dominated France around 1900. On 7 June 1902 a new government led by the radical politician Émile Combes (1835-1921) took office. Already on 27 June it issued a decree ordering the closure of more than 2500 denominational (mainly Catholic) schools. A month later a fight broke out in Paris between the supporters and the opponents of this measure. Diepenbrock followed the developments with disgust and on 29 July 1902 he lamented in a letter to W.G. Hondius van den Broek:
How is it possible to ‘protest’ in a ‘peaceful’ manner against powers as those currently operating under the leadership of somebody like Combes in France? (BD III:439)
However, the publication of Daniélou’s Ballade 11 months later gave Diepenbrock the opportunity to express his dissatisfaction.
In six out of the seven four-line strophes of the poem the expulsion of the monks is mourned:
The cloister where you, wise monk, said your prayers, has been closed down out of hatred for the sober life in the peaceful atmosphere of the convent. The bandits that people call ministers no longer want to hear the Angelus ring out from the belfry of the chapel. Despite the fact that they have dispelled you from your fatherland, you kindly prayed for them to Mary and her Son. But today your voice does not sing Oremus or Ave Maria under the vaults. And one no longer hears the characteristic sound of your sandals on the pavement, while the city of the tyrants sleeps under the dark heaven of the night that oppresses them.
The last strophe brings a turnabout:
Monk, when all those criminals have been banished by us – loyal to the old convent – you will return and pray for them in your chapel.
Diepenbrock opens strophes 1, 3 and 5 with a short, melancholic piano introduction presenting the main melody that is sung many times. The vehement music from the beginning of strophe 2 (“Et ces bandits que l’on appelle des ministres”), where the song suddenly modulates from B-flat major to d minor, is literally repeated in the fourth and sixth strophe, though it continues differently. Daniélou’s impassioned words in the last strophe are accompanied in Diepenbrock’s composition by a transition to G major and in the piano the Marseillaise – the freedom song par excellence – is quoted twice.
In March 1905 Diepenbrock included the Ballade on a list of titles he presented to music publisher A.A. Noske in order to propose them for publication. (BD IV:348) Clearly the author considered this song an art song – and rightly so.