Greensleeves seems to be as much a magnet for mythical claims as dog-heads and cooked pets. People have claimed that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that it is a song about a prostitute; that it was originally an Irish song. For all of these claims there is not a jot of evidence and yet still the stories are circulating widely.
Today, as our Heifetz Holiday Tour for 2017 kicks off with a performance in the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, our Video of the Week is going to feature a performance of a beloved song of the season that Shakespeare would’ve recognized. In fact, he even wrote about it! In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor , first published in 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice to “the tune of Greensleeves.” And Falstaff bellows:
- Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!
According to the fascinating video Greensleeves: Myths and History, the melody first appeared in a publiication in1580, under the title “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves,” the first of a half-dozen publications to appear in the next year all with the name “Greensleeves” in it.
And with the dozens and dozens of variations on the text to this sturdy tune, references to Christmas and New Year’s started appearing within the next century, according to historians. The best known, “What Child Is This?“, was written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix.
On the 2017 Heifetz Holiday Tour, you’re going to hear our fabulous foursome of violinists Ji-Won Song and Yiming Mao, violist Molly Wise, and cellist Noémie Raymond-Friset play English composer Ralph Vaughan Wiliams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, an arrangement that also interpolates another ancient English ballad called Lovely Joan.
Meanwhile, last time we featured the tune it was a version for just two instruments. From the 2016 “Heifetz Holiday Homecoming” concert at Mary Baldwin University, violinist Rachell Wong and cellist Coleman Itzkoff played a captivating performance of “Greensleeves To a Ground,” a set of variations on the traditional melody.
Remember, if you enjoy our Video of the Week feature, you can check out the entire series here – and subscribe to get them in your inbox every week!