THE BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN
The Ballad of Barbara Allen has been known by various names and set to various tunes dating back to 17th century England, and the text of the ballad may be older still. The version taken as inspiration for this arrangement was found in the first volume of Cecil Sharp’s 1917 anthology, English Folks Songs of the Southern Appalachians, a valuable resource for anyone interested in English folk music.
In 2017, when this arrangement was written, I was just starting to teach general music at the K-12 American School in Puerto Montt, Chile. As is unfortunately common in many private schools throughout the country, school funds were continuously siphoned off for profitable ends, with little support for non essential programs like music. Therefore, facing a teaching situation with neither instruments nor books, and being in a school that claimed to prioritize English education, the folk songs of my native country seemed an appropriate foundation on which to build a curriculum. It was thus that I first became acquainted with this ballad.
This specific arrangement came about, like so many of compositions, by necessity. At the time I was collaborating with the Violinist and Luthier René Santibañez. We both share an interest in educating the wider public about classical music, and frequently perform together throughout the countryside. We agreed that Barbara Allan might find a good home in our repertoire, and so with him being an excellent Violinist, and me, a passable singer, I composed this arrangement.
Since 2017 this piece has been re-worked into several different versions. In 2019 it was performed in an iteration for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra with the Litha Symphony, and in late 2020 there are plans for it to be commercially recorded in a version for Cello and Tenor, part of a collection of folk song arrangement commissioned by the american tenor, Brian Thorsett. There is also a version available of this arrangement for Viola and Soprano which was written by the French Trouiloud-Sauer duo (version used in recording).
While writing this piece, I tried to imagine myself in an isolated cabin tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains, silent, and candle-lit. The violin writing suggests a lush orchestral arrangement, so the listener by necessity must use his imagination to fill in the gaps. The style of this music is decidedly folk, and not classical. Therefore, both violin and voice should refrain from producing anything resembling a bel canto style. If in doubt, the 1960 Jean Ritchie recording of Barbara Allen, readily available on YouTube, is a good reference point.
The work is through-composed, and sets eight strophes which tell a tale of requited love, regret, death, and redemption. Because the text often switches between 1st and 3rd person narrative voices, the voice and violin often exchange lead/accompaniment roles also. Though certain elements of the original tune remain constant throughout, it is continually varried, with emotional tone is continually shifting to reflect and dramatize the text.