February 2013

Fantasia on "Greensleeves"

by Ralph Vaughan Williams

As it's Valentine's Day this month, I thought I would seek out a love song.

The English folk song "Greensleeves" is very old. In fact, no one is quite sure exactly who wrote it or when it was written. Our best guess is sometime in the middle to late 1500s. It was definitely written down by 1580. It was a very popular tune. In fact, even William Shakespeare makes mention of the tune in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (written in 1602).

Greensleeves is a love song. It is typically sung, accompanied by a lute (a very early type of guitar). Here is the first verse and chorus:

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.

There was a legend that this song was written by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. For the most part, this idea was dismissed, as this style of music was not known in England until a decade or two after King Henry's death. No one knows who the Lady Greensleeves was, nor the man who loved her. Only the song survives.

The melody is sometimes played in a minor key, but most often, it's played in a Dorian mode. A mode is like a scale (major or minor), but it's a little different. Dorian sounds exactly like minor, except you raise the sixth note of the scale by a half-step. If you want to hear what Dorian sounds like, go to a piano, start with a D, and step up all of the white keys until you reach the next D. That's D Dorian. It has a very sad, minor kind of sound, mixed with a little bit of a major sound. Modes (particularly Dorian) were very popular in 15th and 16th century music.

The music for "Greensleeves" would often be used with other lyrics. Probably the most well-known example of this is the Christmas carol "What Child Is This?", written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. This is far from the only example, though. Songs were written well into the 20th century still using this tune, but with different lyrics.

We talked about Ralph Vaughan Williams in March 2009. He's a British composer who died relatively recently (1958). He wrote a lot of orchestral works, and was particularly fond of folk music.

In 1929, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an opera called "Sir John in Love" that was based on Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." In it, he includes a variation on "Greensleeves". This went over so well that in 1934, he wrote a concert hall piece called "Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'", that was based on the music from the opera. This is probably Ralph Vaughan Williams' best known work.

Fantasia, in this context, means "fantasy", and is usually given to a work that has no particular form or pattern. It can also be a title for works that are based on someone else's music. With this piece, Vaughan Williams is acknowledging that he didn't write "Greensleeves", but this is his arrangement or orchestration of it. It actually includes two folk songs. For the most part, it is the famous English folk song "Greensleeves", but the middle part is another English folk song called "Lovely Jane".

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

In my baby book, my mother wrote down two pieces of music that were my favorite when I was very young: Night on Bald Mountain (Modest Mussorgsky) and "Greensleeves" [by which she meant, Fantasia on "Greensleeves" (Ralph Vaughan Williams)]. I was introduced to this piece at a very, very early age, and I don't remember ever not knowing it.

I'm not positive, but I believe the recording we had was Morton Gould conducting his orchestra on the RCA Victor label. This was a popular recording in the early to mid 1960s. Later, we would also have a cassette of this same album.

I remember that the album had Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and it was immediately after Fantasia on Greensleeves. I knew this because it wasn't until my later teens that I realized that these were two separate pieces. I used to think they were one long piece.


And so, here is the Fantasia on "Greensleeves". Enjoy!

Fantasia on "Greensleeves" by Ralph Vaughan Williams (4:49)

For those interested, this recording is Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

I was raised on folk music. My parents were big fans of Theodore Bikel and other folk singers of the 1960s. Greensleeves is a very old folk song. It has a hauntingly beautiful melody. I can remember singing Greensleeves at a fairly young age (maybe 9 or 10). This particular arrangement has always made me feel that I was dreaming. It is a fantasy.

Extra Credit:

There were a lot of extra credit items that surfaced when I wrote this. I tried to limit it a little.

For starters, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on "Greensleeves" was also arranged as a violin solo. My wife Becky has performed it several times. This particular recording is the famous violinist Isaac Stern.

Isaac Stern performing Fantasia on "Greensleeves" by Ralph Vaughan Williams (3:10)

Next, we have a neat, Medieval presentation of "Greensleeves" provided by Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller. This is from the "Renaissance Holiday" album and features recorders and lutes. This is probably pretty close to an authentic 16th century performance.

"Greensleeves" from "Renaissance Holiday" (Mannheim Steamroller) (2:47)

Similarly, Mannheim Steamroller performed a Chip Davis style arrangement of "Greensleeves" for their second Christmas album (A Fresh Aire Christmas). Even though the tune is known as "What Child Is This?" at Christmas time, the album still acknowledges this track as "Greensleeves." There's still a rich use of recorders, harpsichords, and other early instruments, but this certainly has a more modern flare to it.

"Greensleeves" from "A Fresh Aire Christmas" (Mannheim Steamroller) (3:29)

Here's an example of the tune for "Greensleeves" being put to new lyrics. This is a song performed by the Smothers Brothers on their album "The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers" (1962). The song is "Where the Lilac Grows" and the words were written by Roy C. Bennett and Sid Tepper.

"Where the Lilac Grows" from "The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers" (The Smothers Brothers) (2:57)

For a more modern interpretation, in 1965, the Vince Guaraldi Trio provided music for the animated Christmas special "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Their rendition of "Greensleeves" was not included in the final show, but was included on the soundtrack.

"Greensleeves" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (Vince Guaraldi Trio) (5:28)

And continuing on a jazzy theme, guitarist Mason Williams joined with Mannheim Steamroller and performed an arrangement of "Greensleeves" in 1987.

"Greensleeves" from "Classical Gas" (Mason Williams & Mannheim Steamroller) (3:07)

Finally, because I'm almost considering it a challenge, here's a Simpsons clip that contains a performance of "Greensleeves". This was supposed to be a spoof of "American Idol", but I suspect the writers quickly realized that they would have to pay too much in royalties to have the performers sing songs that were even remotely popular. So they chose a song that's in the public domain. This is from Season 16 "A Star is Torn":