What Child Is This (Greensleeves)

Something to listen to while you read. Sheet music available at Sheet Music Plus.

When I was a very young music geek (I’m now a middle-aged music geek 🙂 ), two Christmas carols topped my list as fun to sing: Angels We Have Heard on High with its “Glooooooooooooo-ria in excelsis Deo” (can I make it through in just one breath?) and the exotic, unpredictable What Child Is This.

What Child Is This gets its tune from the 16th century English folk song, Greensleeves, named for the original ballad’s main character: Lady Green Sleeves. The tune’s unpredictability comes in its second measure (or first line of text on the word “this”) where it can be sung with either a whole step or a half step interval. (Both are widely accepted.)

What Child Is This Piano Sheet Music

The text, penned during a serious illness in 1865 by marine insurance company manager William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), can be as equally unpredictable. One version uses three verses with a consistent chorus (“This, this is Christ the King…”), while another treats that “chorus” as an extension of the first verse and adds new text to the ends of the second and third verses to create three completely different stanzas.

As a kid, I thought four possible combinations, between the text and tune, in one carol was really cool. (I still do.)

Because What Child Is This can sound somewhat exotic for a Christmas carol, I decided to set this piano arrangement in an exotic key: E-Flat Minor. (I just heard a collective groan from pianists everywhere. Yes, yes, I know that key has six flats so it’s a brain teaser. I tried other keys but they just didn’t give this arrangement the flavor I was looking for.) I was also adventurous with the harmonies at the end. (Hooray – even more accidentals!) But, to keep things sane, I made sure the structure throughout was simple, playable, and meditative. Enjoy!

Raise, raise the song on high,
the virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
the babe, the son of Mary.


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