The 1890s saw the rise of the commercial music industry in the United States. Sales of sheet music skyrocketed, enabling everyday music lovers to play and sing songs in their own parlors. The song that touched off the sheet music craze was Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball,” the first “platinum” hit in American music history, ultimately selling over five million copies of sheet music. The song was a romantic favorite, a melodramatic evocation of lost love typical of the Gilded Age. No doubt Gari Melchers learned a few bars of the tune himself while back home for an extended visit in 1883, for he appropriated the song’s title for beautiful little painting he produced that year.
While visiting his parents that year, Melchers was commissioned to paint the first portraits of his professional career. To mark her coming of age, Melchers set about painting the elegant likeness of Detroit beauty, Helen Lothrop Prall. At one point during the course of a painting session with Miss Prall, Melchers must have allowed her to break from her pose and rest in an out-of-the-way corner of the studio. No doubt the artist was so pleased with the effect of his model’s languor that he took up a pen to capture it, and then followed with oils. The result is After the Ball, with its sentimental and slightly melancholy tone suggested by the symbolism of the daisy on which Prall gloomily meditates and the fallen gloves which have escaped her notice. It’s highly plausible that Melchers painted the picture with the song in mind. Incidentally, today the portrait is a perennial favorite at the Detroit Institute of Art.
Here are the lyrics:
A little maiden climbed an old man’s knee,
Begged for a story – “Do, Uncle, please.
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?”
“I had a sweetheart years, years ago;
Where she is now pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I’ll tell it all,
I believed her faithless after the ball.”
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
Bright lights were flashing in the grand ballroom,
Softly the music playing sweet tunes.
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own –
“I wish some water; leave me alone.”
When I returned dear there stood a man,
Kissing my sweetheart as lovers can.
Down fell the glass pet, broken, that’s all,
Just as my heart was after the ball.
Long years have passed child, I’ve never wed.
True to my lost love though she is dead.
She tried to tell me, tried to explain;
I would not listen, pleadings were vain.
One day a letter came from that man,
He was her brother – the letter ran.
That’s why I’m lonely, no home at all;
I broke her heart pet, after the ball.