Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves

This exquisite four-minute orchestral miniature has far eclipsed the song it was inspired by: namely, ‘Greensleeves’, a traditional melody that was doing the rounds in the days of the Tudors and which was put to masterful use here by Vaughan Williams.

He didn’t create it as a stand-alone piece, though; instead, it was initially used in the third act of the composer’s Shakespeare-inspired opera Sir John in Love.

Vaughan Williams once commented, "The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation". In this delightful piece, he manages to capture the very essence of England in music. The serene, pastoral sounds evoke images of bucolic bliss, with lyrical string writing and particularly descriptive flute passages. The title of Fantasia is in some ways misleading: the work is neither long enough nor complex enough to deserve the description; instead, it is a rather faithful setting of the original.

The Fantasia on Greensleeves uses not only the traditional tune alluded to in the title but also the melody ‘Lovely Joan’, which Vaughan Williams came across in Suffolk. In 1934, under the watchful eye of the composer, Ralph Greaves arranged Vaughan Williams’s music into the version we most commonly hear today.

Recommended Recording

English Chamber Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim. Deutsche Grammophon: 4395292. 

Illustration: Mark Millington

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