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Composer of the Week: King Henry VIII of England

It’s been a while since we did a composer of the week. Today it’s King Henry VIII’s turn to be in the spotlight. He’s most famous for being the tyrant who murdered his own wives and destroyed centuries of Christian monastic inheritance in the British Isles. He’s also well known for his troubled daughter, Elizabeth. But not many people know that the tempestuous king was an avid musician and composer. A certain tradition even has him as the author of Greensleeves, which we will be hearing anon. As the legend goes, Henry penned the song for the flighty Ann Boleyn. It’s not true, sadly, but it’s a great story, so let’s not spoil it. While we’re at it, we will learn about musical grounds. To get in the mood, here’s my rendition of Greensleeves with my old friend Count Filip:

King Henry

show king Henry

By all accounts, King Henry was a charming and dangerous man. He enjoyed jousting, feasting and being regal. Most of all, he liked getting married. It was this fascination of his that would upend his life, and the lives of many other people. In a strange way, it would also change the world, because it set the scene for the rise of England as a major world power.

Most importantly for us, however, he was a man of his time. The age in which he lived now bears the name of the Renaissance. This was an era of innovation and exploration. Just as scientists and explorers were pushing the limits of technology, artists and musicians were experimenting with new ways of seeing the world and representing it in art.

King Henry and Music

We’ve looked at other figures from this period before. These musicians were stepping out of the boundaries of the older, medieval world, and celebrating the here and now, the passions, colour and sensation. As it happens, the king was an accomplished player himself. He also composed a number of works, which we have in compilations bearing his name. Unsurprisingly, most of these are love songs. Equally unsurprisingly, they’re not very good. It’s likely that nobody had the guts to let Henry know this, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, they give us a window into the musical life of Renaissance England, with all its colour and verve. Apart from playing himself, Henry contributed to this by patronising some of England’s great universities. Here’s an example of a song that he wrote. It’s about good company, which seems apropos:


One of the most interesting things about this period is the emergence of new genres. One of the most popular was the ground. A ground is a composition that you can build on top of a stable pattern. Typically, a bass instrument plays a repetitive phrase over and over again, while higher voices provide melodies and improvisations. This stable, recurring bass pattern gives the piece coherence and allows the listener to keep track of what is going on throughout the performance. This is vital if you want your audience to dance. As you can imagine, Renaissance audiences liked to dance.


Over time, certain patterns became popular and spread from region to region. As they went, they took on names. These names made it easy for a group of musicians to play together. Once you know a particular pattern, than you can improvise together without the risk of coming apart. Basically, this is how musicians would “jam” in the 16th and 17th centuries. One pattern that became very popular is the Romanesca. We’re going to explore the structure of this ground, because it’s the one that usually underlies Greensleeves. To begin, let’s learn how to build it.


The Romanesca is a simple formula that the bass repeats. This could be a bass viol, harpsichord or other low instrument. The other voices embellish, ornament and improvise on top of this stable, repetitive sequence. The Romanesca has the structure:

III, VII, I, V, III, VII, I – V, I

What does all that mean? Well the first thing we need to do is choose a key. This will be our tonic, or home key. You can think of the tonic as the key that makes you feel like the piece has ended. Let’s go with D. If we think about a D scale, we can number the keys in the sequence like this:

D Scale

Next, let’s reorder it all into the Romanesca sequence:

Romanesca on D

Now we have the bass sequence. So, the person playing the bass or harpsichord will play this sequence over and over again. Then, the recorders, fiddles and voices will make a melody to drape over the top and display their skill in improvising. The bass player himself also gets to show off, particularly at the harpsichord. This is because the player is free to invent melodies and counterpoints with the right hand, while the left hand keeps the bass steady. That’s why, if you watch the video above closely, you’ll notice the players are not actually reading music. Instead, they are relying on the ground and adding their own ideas onto it. The strict, unchanging foundation allows for all the freedom and exhilaration above.


Finally we come to the real subject of this article, the inimitable Greensleeves. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain that King Henry had nothing to with its composition. This is because it has a distinctively Italian form that musicologists agree belongs properly to the Elizabethan era. This is the era that comes just after Henry’s. The song itself first appears in written records in 1580 AD under the rather wordy title A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves. That is was “new” in 1580 and “northern” suggests that it was too late to have been Henry’s work, as he died in 1547, to the relief of many northerners.

But all of that is less important than the tune itself. Most people know it as the melody to What Child is This? That has always been one of my favourite Christmas carols, especially when it ends with a major chord, as is the custom. It is usually sung over a Romanesca bass, which is how we performed it in the video. This melody always reminds me of England, its greenness, its weird and ancient buildings. Another thing I love about it is how easy it is to sing, how naturally it fits in a normal vocal range. And as some of you know, I love English music and I’m always looking for opportunities to bring it to an audience. To that end, I’ll leave you with Vaughan Williams’ mythical, English take on this beautiful ditty. There is no more fitting tribute than this:

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