composer's note: I love oratorios. I love how they gather huge choirs, solo singers, and large orchestras together for such an intimate purpose: telling a story through music. The idea for “Barbara Allen” came to me when I was considering what makes a great oratorio, and how I might say something new within that form. Most oratorios are based on biblical text, and there are a few things about those bible stories that make wonderful source material for an oratorio. First, they have uncomplicated plots, which allows for a very detailed kind of storytelling; without too many plot points in the story, you can really delve into all the emotional nuances embedded in each line of text. Second, they’re stories that are deeply embedded in our culture, so they almost feel like part of our collective cultural DNA. This gives them a sense of familiarity, but also removes the element of surprise from the story, so that the oratorio is less about “finding out what happens next” and more about enjoying watching the story slowly unfold.
When I started brainstorming about what secular stories might have those same qualities, the idea of using an American folk ballad dawned on me. I’ve loved (and worked with) folk music for a very long time, and folk ballads tell wonderfully timeless stories that are both deeply emotional and powerfully simple. The amazing folk singer & storyteller Jean Ritchie called Barbara Allen “the song everyone knows,” and right off the bat it seemed like the obvious choice, in that it’s just so deeply embedded in Appalachian (and before that, Scottish) culture, and such a moving story, and so well-known. In addition, it has the characters of Barbara and William, who immediately felt like perfect opportunities to use solo singers. And it has such powerful emotions running through it. Plus, there are dozens of traditional tunes to which the story of Barbara Allen has been sung, which gave me a wonderful array of source material to work with. For this oratorio, I chose two of my favorite traditional tunes (one frequently sung by Jean Ritchie, and one frequently sung by Pete Seeger) and used them as jumping-off points for this musical journey.
While I know that on the surface, it seems rather strange to take a short folk song and turn it into a full-length oratorio with soloists, choir, and orchestra, it feels like a natural extension of the form to me. By taking a classic folk ballad like Barbara Allen and expanding it into an oratorio, I can really open up that beautiful story and explore it in great detail. Using the color palette (and emotional palette) of classical oratorio in combination with the directness and storytelling power of Appalachian folk music allows my “Barbara Allen” oratorio to illuminate the subtexts and emotional resonances of Barbara Allen, in a way that pays homage to folk music but also takes the story in an exciting and rich new direction.