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Fantasia on Greensleeves

by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams


Vaughan Williams once commented, “The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation”. In this piece, he manages to capture the very essence of England in music. The serene, pastoral sounds evoke images English countryside, with lyrical string writing and particularly descriptive flute passages.
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.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, where his father was vicar. Antecedents included the interconnected families of Wedgwood and Darwin. Following his father’s death in 1875 he was brought up at Leith Hill Place in Surrey and educated at Charterhouse School, the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a pupil of Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, later studying with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris.
At the turn of the century, he was among the very first to travel into the countryside to collect folk songs and carols from singers, notating them for future generations to enjoy. As musical editor of The English Hymnal he composed several hymn tunes that remain popular (including Sine Nomine, “For all the Saints” and Down Ampney, “Come down O love Divine”). A long and deep friendship with Gustav Holst was a constructive relationship which was crucial to the development of both composers.
Vaughan Williams took three years off his age to volunteer for the army during the 1914-1918 war; after a long period of training and waiting he was sent to France in 1916, serving as a wagon orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Later, he was given a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and found himself in charge of both guns and horses. The carnage and the loss of close friends such as the composer George Butterworth deeply affected him and influenced his music after the war.
He was widely read, and heavily influenced by poets and writers including Shakespeare, Bunyan, Blake, and Walt Whitman.
A knighthood was offered and refused, but the Order of Merit was conferred upon him in 1935.
He died on 26 August 1958. In a long and productive life, music flowed from his creative pen prolifically. His works include nine symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, oboe and tuba, five operas, chamber, ballet and film music, a large body of songs and song cycles, and various important unaccompanied and orchestral choral works. His orchestral works include such popular favourites as The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, The Wasps Overture and the English Folk Song Suite.
I have chosen this for the series because of the simplicity of the melody and the colours needed to create a somewhat distant feeling in the opening then a simple but expressive Greensleeves theme, dotted rhythmic patterns are so important in this piece for the simplicity and the two third register E’s present a challenge. Foundation Tools help with all of these.