Not Henry VIII: Greensleeves

In September of 1580 the publisher Richard Jones registered the first instance of the tune known as "Greensleeves" with the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers.  This group was essentially a private guild and the Tudor version of copyright.  It began as a collection of printers, illustrators, manuscript writers and other companies involved in the communication technology of the 15th century with the idea to provide a means to produce and protect the intellectual property through the written word.

In the year following the initial registration, 6 other works with similar titles were registered with the Stationers, from various (and competitive) publishers and a contentious battle over the rights ensued. Eventually, this mess of supposed plagiarism and musical pilfering settled into what would become 400 years of arranging, rewriting and adaptation into the melody that modern society is now familiar with today.

Another interesting byline is that many attribute the composition of the melody to none other than the big man himself, Henry VIII.

Despite his reputation at being all uxoricidy, Henry actually had pretty baller street cred as a composer as well as being a sort of manly Renaissance man.  This coupled with his ability to burn through cash faster than the Sun fuses hydrogen atoms, made him the ultimate man's man/potentate. Not to mention that he pretty much reinvented contemporary religion for the sole purpose of picking up chicks.

But this entry really isn't about dear ol' Hank, because historians tell us fairly definitively that he did not compose Greensleeves, thus the mystery continues unabated.  One interpretation of the lyrics claims that because of her green clad nature, the lady referenced in the lyrics very possibly was a prostitute as apparently having "green" and "clothing" in the same conversation often referred to the practice of...well...

Alternatively, it is thought that the woman who "cast off" the author "so discourteously" was in fact mistaken for a prostitute by the author, which (despite what you might have heard on the internet) is not generally a great way to make friends and influence people, let alone make the acquaintance of the fairer sex.

The other theory (and likely the reason for the King Henry attribution) is the similarity between the plight of the author and King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and her early rejection of his advances. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up with a simple analysis of the style exhibited in the piece, being that it's of an Italian nature that was uncommon in England until a bit after ol' Hank kicked the bucket, partially due to being grossly out of shape, but also in part from his transparent addiction to the good times.

My how times have changed.

But by now, you might be asking yourself why is this classified into the 6 Listening Friday's of Christmas?  Well, faithful reader, because in 1865 an insurance company manager fell very ill and had a sort of spiritual revival that caused him to pen several hymns while in a rather depressed, bed-ridden state. The man's name was William Chatterton Dix and he lived in Glasgow at the time he wrote the poem, "The Manger Throne".

It wasn't until 1871, when the poem was set to the "Greensleeves" and included in a hymnal edited by Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, thus altering the meaning and purpose of the original text greatly. The hymn has survived well, perhaps earning more popularity in the United States than its home country of England.

The melody is haunting, categorically Renaissance in nature and in composition.  It recalls an air of mystery well-applied to it's bewildering heritage.  Perhaps we'll never know who wrote it, and perhaps it doesn't matter.  It has come to represent much to many and will most certainly continue to do so throughout the ages.

For the example today, I present my most cherished setting of the melody, by Ralph Vaughn Williams in his "Fantasia on the Dargason" which pairs the somber tune with a lively English dance.

See you next Friday.


Here's the Star of Indiana performing an adaptation of the work in 1989 at DCI finals (with kind of a crappy stereotypical drum corps ending- but the rest is pretty good!):

And here's the more traditional version performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra: