- First Published: 1871, London
- Key: Harmonic minor; originally published in E minor
History of “What Child Is This?” | Lyrics & Chords
The lyrics to “What Child Is This?” come from the carol “The Manger Throne,” written by English poet William Chatterton Dix in 1865. The first known instance of this carol being set to the tune of “Greensleeves” is in Sir John Stainer’s 1871 hymnbook Christmas Carols, New and Old.
However, this wasn’t the first time the music of Greensleeves was used as a holiday tune. A 1642 carol titled “The Old Year Now Away Has Fled,” found in New Christmas Carols, was described as “a carol for New Year’s Day, to the tune of Green Sleeves.”
Greensleeves itself was a favorite in Tudor England, and many lyrical variations of the tune sprung up; from conveniently political poems to love ballads about one “Ladie Greene Sleeves.” But the earliest history of the music remains vague. In fact, the music is believed to have originated in England, but because it was written in romanesca form – a style that was only really popular with Italian composers of the time – its English roots have been disputed. Another more romantic misconception about the origin of Greensleeves is that it was written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn.
In 1580, the first licenses were sought for use of the tune, and were granted to both Richard Jones for “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves,” and for Edward White’s “A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves Answere to Donkyn his frende.” Another arrangement called “A New Courtly Sonet, of the Lady Green Sleeves” appeared in the 1584 songbook A Handefull of Pleasant Delites by Clement Robinson. Greensleeves also received a few comedic mentions in Shakespeare’s 1602 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and took song form in John Fletcher’s 1647 The Loyal Subject, and later in John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera.
Learn “What Child Is This?” on Piano
Complete piano sheet music for “What Child Is This? / Greensleeves” in the key of f# minor. This arrangement takes you across the octaves, and has a slightly elaborate texture with some full chords. It’s best suited for intermediate pianists or the beginner who wants to step towards the next playing-level.
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