Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on “Greensleeves”
For: flutes I-II; harp; strings
Arranged: 1934 by Ralph Greaves from an interlude in the opera Sir John in Love, 1924–28
First performed: September 27, 1934 at a Vaughan Williams Promenade Concert in Queen’s Hall, London, the composer conducting (the opera was first performed March 21, 1929)
Published by: Oxford University Press (London, 1934)
Duration: about 5 minutes
The ever-popular song Greensleeves came to prominence in the late sixteenth century and was cited by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The text had first appeared in a famous anthology called A Handefull of Pleasant Delites (1584).
As music director for 1913 productions of Stratford-upon-Avon, Vaughan Williams used the song in both Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In act III of his opera Sir John in Love, based on The Merry Wives, he gives the tune to Mistress Ford. Ten years later this setting was excerpted and refashioned for a Prom concert, one of those music-for-everybody fests that traditionally launch the London season.
This version of Greensleeves has become more or less the industry standard by virtue of being just sweet enough to evoke thoughts of rosy medievaldom without quite sliding into sentimentality. The patina of antiquity results from placing the tune in the middle of the musical fabric for the most part, with descants above and plucking strings below. The harp and flute solo are employed for angelic effect at the beginning and again toward the end; elsewhere the harp participates in the plucked effects. For the first verse the song is in the second violins and violas, and in the even warmer pairing of the violas and cellos for the verse at the end; both verse have the concluding refrain in the violins. At the center, there is a folk tune of rather similar contour, Lovely Joan.
—D. Kern Holoman