Monday, January 10, 8620

English (b. 1620) - Greensleeves to a Ground

Anonymous English (b. 1620) - Greensleeves to a Ground (c. 1650)

Greensleeves is a traditional English folk song and tune, a ground of the form called a romanesca.

A broadside ballad by this name was registered at the London Stationer's Company in 1580 as A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves. 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. It remains debatable whether this suggests that an "old" tune of Greensleeves was in circulation, or which one the familiar tune is. Many surviving sets of lyrics were written to this tune. The tune is also 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 Cambridge University libraries.

A widely-believed (but completely unproven) legend is that it was composed by King Henry VIII (1491–1547) for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn. Anne, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, rejected Henry's attempts to seduce her. This rejection is apparently referred to in the song, when the writer's love "cast me off discourteously." However, it is most unlikely that King Henry VIII wrote it, as the song is written in a style which was not known in England until after Henry VIII died.

It is widely acknowledged that Lady Green Sleeves was at the very least a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute.

At this time, the word "green" also had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the way that grass stains might be seen on a ladies' dress if she had made love outside.

An alternative explanation is that Lady Green Sleeves was, as a result of her attire, incorrectly assumed to be immoral. Her "discourteous" rejection of the singer's advances quite clearly makes the point that she is not.

On page 500 of Nevill Coghill's translation of The Canterbury Tales. Coghill explains that "green for Chaucer’s age was the color of lightness in love. This is echoed in 'Greensleeves is my delight' and elsewhere."

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.


Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.


I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.


If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.


My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.


Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.

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," and Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes!
Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves

These allusions suggest that the song was well known at that time.

The Christmas carol What Child Is This? is sung to the tune of Greensleeves.

Act II of Busoni's Turandot utilizes the tune in a Chinese manner.


Christoph Bernhard (January 1, 1628, Kolberg, Poland - November 14, 1692, Dresden, Germany) studied in Gdańsk and Warsaw, and by the age of 20 was singing at the electoral court in Dresden under Heinrich Schütz. He then spent a year in Copenhagen to study singing with Agostino Fontana. After his appointment as assistant kapellmeister in Dresden in 1655, Bernhard made two sojourns to Italy to further his musical education. When he was 35, he moved to Hamburg to work as the director of music for the Johanneum and for civic musical events. The next ten years were a golden time in the musical tradition of Hamburg: Bernhard and his good friend Matthias Weckmann performed together and directed the latest compositions from Italy and Vienna, as well as composing an important collection of music in finely-wrought counterpoint.

The Elector of Saxony recalled Bernhard to Dresden in 1674, where he returned as assistant kapellmeister. Six years later, the large - and primarily Italian - musical establishment in the city was greatly reduced, until Bernhard remained the only kapellmeister at court. He continued composing, directing and caring for the music library in Dresden until his death in 1692, at the age of 64. Bernhard left behind many sacred vocal works, a few secular compositions, and three important treatises on music, the most famous of which is the Tractatus compositionis augmentatus (c. 1657).

Related Reading:

Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Music in the Western World: A History in Documents
Christoph Bernhard
Treatises (Pages 187-189)

[8632 Lully / 8620 Greensleeves / 8619 Strozzi]