Download sheet music for the English folk tune of Greensleeves: the melody commonly used with the Christmas lyrics of “What Child Is This?” written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix.
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Who wrote “What Child Is This?”
The lyrics are said to be based on a poem by William Chatterton Dix called, “The Manger Throne.” Sir John Stainer first published the lyrics in 1871. Both texts contemplate the humble manger scene of Jesus’s birth in contrast with his divine role as the Son of God and King of Heaven in the Christian tradition. It’s one of the most beloved sacred Christmas carols.
William Chatterton Dix wrote the lyrics for “What Child Is This,” but he didn’t write the tune.
The tune first appeared in the late 1500’s, making it about 300 years older than the lyrics. It was a popular romantic ballad in England in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance called “Greensleeves.” This song was so well known that it’s even mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
What makes the melody for this piece so special?
This beautiful, haunting melody uses a melodic minor scale. This means that sometimes the sixth and seventh tones of the scale are raised from the natural minor by a half step, and sometimes they are not. Take a look at the sheet music and see if you can spot the sharps and the naturals. When you play, pay close attention to the notes and make sure you’re playing them correctly.
A tune written with a melodic minor scale has a special way of holding the listener’s attention because the sounds can be unexpected as certain notes shift up or down a half step from the last time they were heard. It gives the song an almost magical quality.
What are the chords used for this song?
The first section of the song has a simple descending chord progression. For the Early Elementary and Elementary arrangements, these chords are A minor, G major, F major, and E major. For the Intermediate arrangement, the chords are E minor, D major, C major, B major. In other words, i-VII-VI-V. Even though the song is written in a minor key, most of the chords are major! This gives the song a beautiful emotional texture as it moves between the sad sound of minor to the happy sound of the major chords.
What are the differences between these three arrangements of “What Child Is This?”
The Early Elementary (Hoffman Academy Units 1-4) arrangement is the simplest of the three arrangements. It’s written with the melody line only. The key is A minor, with no sharps or flats in the key signature, and the time signature is ¾. This arrangement includes the first two phrases of the original song.
The Late Elementary (Hoffman Academy Units 9-11) arrangement is in the same key and with the same time signature as the Early Elementary arrangement, but it includes an accompaniment of simple blocked chords for the left hand to play. There are also dynamic markings and phrase lines on the Late Elementary arrangement to give the musician some ideas for how to perform the song.
The Intermediate (Hoffman Academy Units 15-18) arrangement is in the key of E minor, which has one sharp and is the relative minor for the key of G major. It’s also written in 6/8 time. This arrangement includes the entire melody for the song, while the Early and Late Elementary arrangements only include the first two phrases.
Where else is this melody used?
As mentioned above, the melody is the same melody used for the English folk song, “Greensleeves.” In modern times this tune was used by Ralph Vaughn Williams in his opera “Sir John in Love,” and also arranged into his famous orchestral piece, “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” There are also other Christmas carols written for this tune, but “What Child is This” is by far the most popular.