Piece of the Week: Greensleeves


The piece that we know today as “Greensleeves” originated as a sixteenth century English broadside ballad. A broadside ballad was an early form of popular music in which an author penned lyrics that fit the tune of a well known folk song; a publisher would then print the lyrics up on a single sheet of newspaper (a “broadside”) and sell in the street. “Greensleeves” was first published this way in 1580, though the tune itself would have been much older, and it proved so popular that many other printers quickly publisher their own lyrics to the same tune. The piece’s popularity was undiminished three centuries later, when the same tune was adapted into the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” The piece received another boost when the famous English composer and folklorist Ralph Vaughan-Williams released his orchestral piece “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’” in 1934. With its haunting minor-mode melody and folksong simplicity, it is easy to see why this piece has remained in the public ear for over 400 years.

Arrangement Notes:

The traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” is given an interesting treatment in this new arrangement for concert band from Carl Fischer. The recognizable tune is first introduced in the low winds with complimentary moving eighth notes over top in the upper woodwinds. The melodic line then moves to the trumpets as the upper woodwinds continue with a unison counter line. Soon, a bolero-like drum rhythm is introduced with interesting rhythmic counterpoint in the brass. This continues as the clarinets and saxophones take up the melodic line. In a twist, the orchestration then inverts as the trumpets take up the melody while the upper woodwinds take over the rhythmic counterpoint. The secondary theme moves through all the voices, taking advantage of all the different colors available to the ensemble. The piece then moves into a middle section featuring a woodwind choir, which dramatically moves to a slow and majestic chorale prelude setting of the main theme in the brass. This full-voiced section fades into a quiet concluding section in which the main theme transforms from minor to major.

Audio Sample:

Audio provided by Carl Fischer, LLC.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at gwoodworth at makemusic dot com. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.

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