Friday, 13 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(24): ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’

‘My Lady Greensleeves’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1863), oil on canvas, 33.02 x 27.31 cm, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

This morning [13 March 2015], I encourage you to join me in listening to his ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves.’

The ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ first appeared in Vaughan Williams’s opera Sir John in Love, in which he used both the familiar ‘Greensleeves’ folk tune and another folk song from his collection, ‘Lovely Joan.’ When he arranged the ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ for this opera, Vaughan Williams brought the two songs together.

The word fantasy or fantasia is sometimes used in music to describe a work that does not follow any set form or pattern. It is also used for compositions that are based on another musical work, like the ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves.’

According to one source, Vaughan Williams composed a ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ based on the ‘Greensleeves’ melody, in 1934. However, according to others, the 1934 ‘Fantasia’ is actually an arrangement made by Ralph Greaves from Vaughan Williams’s 1928 opera Sir John in Love. They point out that the fantasia also incorporates a folk song called ‘Lovely Joan’ in the middle section. There are also several other, later arrangements by various writers, but no version by Vaughan Williams himself.



This is England’s classic folk song of all time. It dates to the mid or late 1500s, and folklore says it was written by Henry VIII for his future queen Anne Boleyn. The story says Anne Boleyn rejected his attempts to seduce her and this rejection may be referred to in the song when the writer’s love “cast me off discourteously.”

However, the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after the death of Henry VIII, making it more likely to be Elizabethan in origin.

The earliest known source of the tune ‘Greensleeves’ is in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The earliest known source of the tune is in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (Ms. D. I. 21, ca 1580), where it is known as William Ballet’s lute book. There the tune is given in the melodic minor scale.

A broadside ballad with this name was registered at the London Stationer’s Company in September 1580 by Richard Jones, as ‘A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.’

Six more ballads followed in less than a year, one on the same day, 3 September 1580 (‘Ye Ladie Greene Sleeves answere to Donkyn hir frende’ by Edward White), then on 15 and 18 September (by Henry Carr and again by Edward White), 14 December (Richard Jones again), 13 February 1581 (Wiliam Elderton), and August 1581 (White’s third contribution, ‘Greene Sleeves is worne awaie, Yellow Sleeves Comme to decaie, Blacke Sleeves I holde in despite, But White Sleeves is my delighte’).

It then appears in the surviving A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) as ‘A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green Sleeves.’

The tune is found in several late 16th century and early 17th century sources, such as Ballet’s MS Lute Book and Het Luitboek van Thysius, as well as various manuscripts preserved in the Seeley Historical Library at the University of Cambridge.

In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice without any explanation to the tune of ‘Greensleeves.’ Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!
These allusions indicate that the song was already well known at that time.


One possible interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute. At the time, the word “green” had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase “a green gown,” a reference to the way that grass stains might be seen on a woman’s dress if she had engaged in sexual intercourse on the grass.

An alternative explanation is that Lady Green Sleeves was, through her costume, incorrectly assumed to be sexually promiscuous. Her “discourteous” rejection of the singer’s advances supports the contention that she is not.

In Nevill Coghill’s translation of The Canterbury Tales, he explains that in Chaucer’s times green “was the colour of lightness in love. This is echoed in ‘Greensleeves is my delight’ and elsewhere.”

From as early as 1686, Christmas and New Year texts were associated with the tune. By the 19th century, almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain “On Christmas Day in the morning.”

One of the most popular of these carols is ‘What Child Is This?’, written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix.

Tomorrow:Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis

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