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Trying to write Greensleeves

In 2013 I attended a composition course in Holland. In a lesson with a well-known Dutch composer I played a piece of mine; when it finished, he told me ‘all English composers are trying to write Greensleeves’. Backhanded compliment or otherwise, he had hit on my predilection for a good tune. Now, working on a project all about British music, I keep returning to this idea.

I’ve been working on the Score to Sound project for a few weeks now, and a big part of my time so far has been spent programming a concert of British music. With public Discovery Days associated with the concerts, we wanted the pieces to be tied together with a theme that would help guide me and our audience through the music. I’ve not programmed Greensleeves, but I have foregrounded line and melody in the choice of pieces.

Melody is something that – as a listener – I find too easy to impose on a piece: when listening to something (especially for the first time) I try mentally to link up successive notes and sounds to make a line that I can comprehend. This is how I most often make sense of music, whether listening to it, composing it, writing about it or playing it. But I think there’s something more in this idea than simply a subjective approach to the experience of hearing music. Even in the most complex compositions – including structures conceived with disunity at the heart, like moment form – a listener can gain a great deal by hearing links from note to note and section to section.

In British music I have always heard a strong sense of melody and linearity. In the programme for this project, some works demonstrate this quite clearly, quoting or invoking folk tunes; in others, disjointed chords gradually come together to create a line. Thinking in terms of melody has helped me get a lot out of this music, and as the project progresses – and when the events start in early April – I hope it will help our audiences find their way through some fascinating contemporary British music.

The idea of line is also reflected in the painting chosen for the project’s artwork, as spiralling threads converge to create the focus of attention in Up-Draft (Cathy Denford).

Up-draft, (c) Cathy Denford

The full programme will be announced in another blog post later this week; in the meantime you can see if you hear anything of Greensleeves in the piece I played in that lesson (I’m not sure I do).

2 responses to “Trying to write Greensleeves”

  1. Roger Marsh says:

    I took up your challenge (to see if I hear Greensleeves). If you hadn’t said anything it would not have entered my head. But of course once you say that…….every time a phrase begins with a single tone I hear it as a potential upbeat to Greensleeves. I feel a bit cheated now. I want to hear Greensleeves. Of course I also want to know who the well known Dutch composer was. Was it Louis? All Dutch composers are trying to write the Rite of Spring aren’t they? Fa la la.

    • This wasn’t Louis, no. He was at the course and I don’t know about green sleeves, but he certainly wore rather colourful socks. I’ll try to weave Greensleeves into my next piece…

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About the author

Martin Scheuregger is a musicologist and composer, currently working as a Research Fellow on the Score to Sound project at the Contemporary Music Research Centre, University of York. He takes an inter-disciplinary approach to research, combining musical analysis and composition as he explores notions of time and brevity in music. Recent work has seen him…

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