by Stephen Collins Foster, 1826-1864
Stephen Foster's "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" is not one of his more popular songs, but it is one that deserves a wider hearing. Quite different from Foster's minstrel songs of the same period, this song is an example of the composer's parlor ballad, or type of popular song characterized by a sentimental quality, typically strophic in form and usually in a slow tempo. As the ballad has roots in the Anglo-Scots-Irish song tradition, scholars have noted that Foster"s "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" is reminiscent to Irish musician Thomas Moore"s "The Last Rose of Summer," although Foster"s melody is simpler than that of his Irish predecessor.
After a brief piano introduction, the vocal line of "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" opens with a high D that is held with a fermata, perhaps to give the illusion of stalling the passage of time. Foster has placed additional fermatas throughout the song, possibly with similar effects in mind. Also of interest is Foster's use of the marking ad lib in several places in the song. This flexibility allotted to the singer is atypical from Foster's usual preference of precise, literally exact note for note, interpretations. Thus, the ad lib designation was scarcely used by Foster and can, in fact, be found in only two of the composer's previous songs: "Mary Loves the Flowers" (1850) and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854).
"Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" was published by F. D. Benteen of Baltimore in April of 1850. Foster probably hoped that the publication of his parlor ballads helped diversify his reputation as a song composer, but the ballads proved financially unsatisfactory as compared to his minstrel songs. In his account ledger of 1857, Foster recorded that "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" had earned a mere $8.12 in royalties over a seven-year period. As a result, Foster redirected his compositional efforts to minstrel songs, which averaged a return of nearly ten times more than the ballads published at that time. Beginning in 1860, Foster returned once more to the sentimental ballad, the most noteworthy being "Beautiful Dreamer," published in 1864 just after the composer's death.