“Greensleeves” is a traditional English folk song dating to the late 16th century (possibly earlier), named for its association with various ballads of “ye Ladye Greene Sleves,” who spurns the love of an eager suitor. The melody, which became a popular accompaniment to numerous songs on different topics, emerged during the long period in which the modal system of musical composition was giving way to the tonal (major-minor) system, and it contains elements of both.
The poem, “What Child is this?” by the English writer William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), first appeared in the privately printed pamphlet, “Christmas Carols & Christmas Customs,” circa 1870. The pairing of Dix’s poem with the “Greensleeves” tune (an example of contrafactum, the pairing of a religious lyric or sacred text with a popular or secular tune) is thought to have been the work of the English composer, organist, and choirmaster Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), who had written a harmonized setting of the tune. For generations since, it has been one of the best-loved Christmas carols.
Here’s a performance by the Hungarian ensemble, the Daniel Speer brass.
Score, parts (Bb tpt. 1, Bb tpt. 2, F horn, tbn, tuba) — $12.99