Greensleeves: Dorian Mode

My recent posts on music, scales, and modes reminded me of the song “Greensleeves,” written in the Dorian mode. According to Wikipedia, “‘Greensleeves’ is a traditional English folk song. A broadside ballad by the name ‘A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves’ was registered by Richard Jones at the London Stationer’s Company in September 1580, and the tune is found in several late-16th-century and early-17th-century sources, such as Ballet’s MS Lute Book and Het Luitboek van Thysius, as well as various manuscripts preserved in the Seeley Historical Library in the University of Cambridge.” Myth has it that Henry VIII wrote the song as a gift for Ann Boleyn, but the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death, making it more likely to be Elizabethan in origin.

The melody of “Greensleeves” was adapted in modern times to form a Christmas carol called “What Child is This?” So one hears the melody these days more during the Christmas season than at any other time of year.

Modern performances of the song often raise the sixth and seventh tones of the scale when the melody is going up to modernize the sound. I prefer the original with the lowered sixth and seventh. That makes the song sound remote and alien, but that’s what it is.

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