Listening to Britten – Greensleeves

Cattle on the Marshes by John Alfred Arnesby Brown. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

Greensleeves – folksong arrangement for voice and piano (ca 1940-1941, Britten aged 27)

Dedication not known
Text John Jacob Niles
Language English
Duration 3’30”

Audio clip with thanks to Hyperion
Greensleeves (Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Although Britten and Vaughan Williams polarised opinions on the treatment of authentic folksong, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point they would choose the same tune as a starting point. The elder composer, through his Fantasia on Greensleeves for orchestra, ensured he was often the first point of reference for the tune where classical audiences were concerned.

Britten, on the other hand, produced an arrangement that was barely heard about, with words that are still unknown, even to the Britten Thematic Catalogue. All that is known is the year of composition (1941) and that this arrangement sat outside of his ‘British Isles’ book of folksong arrangements. As a result, nothing is forthcoming from the existing Britten literature, but the song can be sung by lower voice too – as the attached audio demonstrates.


It is hard to hear Greensleeves these days without thinking of English pastoral scenes, the ‘green and pleasant land’. Perhaps aware of this, Britten relocates the song to G minor – a fair distance from Vaughan Williams’ E minor – and gives the piano part a thrumming accompaniment that brings it closer to the harp.

Also added are a couple of chromatic inflections, once again introducing sombre notes of uncertainty, staying close to the song’s theme of ‘one who has been left by his love’, as the Britten song database puts it.

Vaughan Williams is unlikely to be usurped from his pedestal as chief Greensleeves arranger, then – but as is his wont, Britten finds new ways of sewing with old material.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

Some fine and firmly established Britten singers here, and not a foot wrong across all three of them. The duet version is intriguing, though perhaps a bit much.


Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are the only version listed above to be found on Spotify, by clicking here.

Also written in 1941: Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor Op.40 (revised version)

Next up: Village Organist’s Piece

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