Among the many thousands of lovely songs that have come down to us from the past, some stand out as ‘super giants’.
Did the lady in the court of Henry VIII in that beautiful dress with flowing green sleeves, ever dream that we would still be singing about her more than 500 years later?
‘Greensleeves was all my joy, Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves was my heart of gold, and who but my lady Greensleeves?’
Popularly believed to have been written by Henry himself, that beautiful tune, so evocative of its time and period, has been sung and played the world over – and still remains fresh today.
But it is not only the melody which is so entrancing. The story the song tells is equally compelling. The injustice of love, constancy unrequited, the ardour of a suitor who refuses to give up!
‘I have been ready at your hand to grant whatever you would crave, I have both wagered life and land, your love and goodwill for to have……..I bought thee kerchers to thy head…….petticoats of the best…….girdle of gold so red, with pearls bedecked sumptuously………crimson stockings, all of silk, with gold all wrought above the knee……..and yet thou wouldst not love me.’
Was this Anne Boleyn, holding out for the ultimate prize – to be crowned queen of England?
‘Thy gown was of the grassy green, thy sleeves of satin hanging by, which made thee be our harvest queen; and yet thou wouldst not love me….’
One wonders how the lady in question managed to hold out in the face of such long and passionate wooing….and indeed, the shifting minor to major feel of the implied harmonies rather leave that question unanswered. Was it a sad or happy ending?
‘well, I will pray to god on high that thou my constancy may’st see; for I am still thy lover true, come once again and love me…….’
And the fact that we think of Henry VIII with affection, as a great man and a great King, despite his ruthless, murderous treatment of his six wives, may well be due in no small part, to the power of this song.
Here we have the recipe for a truly great song – a haunting, beautifully constructed melody, cleverly affecting harmonies, and a story that touches the heart.
Long may it continue!
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Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule.