Monday, November 6, 2006

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on "Greensleeves"

Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), often regarded as the most "English" of English composers, owes much to the early influences of his Brahmsian composition teachers (Parry and Stanford), and something also to his years as a soldier in WorldWar I, but neither so much as to his love of English folksong, a source of endless creative inspiration for him throughout his long, prolific musical life. 

The "Fantasia on Greensleeves" is but one song from Vaughan Williams’ tuneful third opera Sir John in Love, (1924-1928). Like Verdi's "Falstaff," the work is based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, and though "Sir John" has not held the stage like its rival, it is beloved for its sequence of buoyant, memorable song melodies. Legend has it that the tune of "Greensleeves" was written by King Henry VIII himself for his lover and future queen Anne Boleyn, and multiple references to the tune in Shakespeare's "Wives" indicate that it has been well-known since at least that time.  In "Sir John," Vaughan Williams conjoins it with another folk song from his extensive collection, "Lovely Joan," heard in the middle of this 1934 adaptation by Ralph Greaves. 

Though he would have considered himself a religious agnostic, Vaughan Williams served brilliantly as editor of the highly successful English Hymnal of 1900, and many of his works deal directly or indirectly with Christian subjects. To some, his best-known work may be the tune "Sine Nomine" ("without a name") set for the hymn "For All the Saints.”  Vaughan Williams was buried in Westminster Abbey, one of only a handful of composers, like George Frederick Handel and Charles & John Wesley, to be so honored. 

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