The King's Noyse
April 2, 2000 Program
The English Ballad - Barbara Allen's cruelty
Equal parts fragile melancholy and foot stomping jollity, English melodies have broad appeal. The tune for Barbara Allen's cruelty is probably one of the most recognizable melodies on this program. Since the most famous source for the ballad and the earliest source for the ballad tune is the 1745 edition of Bishop Percy's Relics of Ancient Poetry, it has been commonly thought of as an 18th-century ballad. The thick, complicated and often very beautiful harmonizations of Barbara Allen that are familiar to us in this country make it even more difficult to hear the tune as a late Renaissance song. But the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys recounts hearing the "Scotch song of Barbara Allen" sung by his favorite actress, Mrs. Knipp, and by Pepys' time it had probably already been a popular favorite for many years. We are using a 17th-century source for the text, and I have attempted to give this traditional standard a distinctly 17th-century musical interpretation through the harmonization and style of accompaniment.
A perpetual icon in popular culture since the 17th century, Barbara Allen found one of its most famous modern uses in the 1951 cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which the opening verse is sung at the Christmas Day dinner at the home of Scrooge's nephew. The film's makers may have intended to draw a connection between Barbara Allen's insensitivity and that of the unreformed Scrooge, who like Barbara Allen is slow in making his way to the death bed of his "best friend," and relied on the movie audience to remember the meaning of the ballad. It is amazing to think that a popular song could remain in the public's collective consciousness for 350 years, but no one can doubt the enduring nature of the ballad repertory which echoes, by design, life's experiences.Excerpted from program notes by David Douglass