Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Another fine product from Norfolk

Dinahmow, she who puts the Ee! in Queensland, suggests that my choir 'Les Jeudistes' might like to have a crack at Sumer is icumen in. In fact it was one of first songs we ever learnt when we first got together more than 10 years ago.

It's one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever composed. First of all, it's a canon, like a round, for example Three Blind Mice or Row, Row, Row your Boat, only much more complicated. Composing canons is demanding enough, but Sumer is icumen in, sung by three different soprano voices, is hardly simplified by being sung over a rota or ostinato of mens' voices singing the same thing over and over again.

So while the tenors sing 'Sing cuckoo! Sing cuckoo! Sing cuckoo!' something like 40 times, while...

the basses sing 'Sing cuckoo now! Sing cuckoo now! Sing cuckoo now!' about 40 times as well, while...

over the top of this the sopranos are singing the following words, not together but staggered, at intervals:

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing 'Cuckoo!'
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
And spring'th the wood anew.
Sing 'Cuckoo!'
Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Low'th after calve cu,
Bullock sterteth, buck everteth*
Merry sing 'Cuckoo!'
Well singst thou 'Cuckoo!'
Ne swik thou never nu.

This translates as: Summer has come, loudly sing 'Cuckoo!' Seeds grow and the meadows blow, and the wood comes to life again: sing 'Cuckoo!' Ewe bleats after lamb, the cow lows after the calf, bullocks spring up, deer jump about*: merrily sing 'Cuckoo!' You sing 'Cuckoo!' well: Don't ever stop now.

The extraordinary thing about this song is its age. Originally it came from Reading Abbey, and it's attributed, maybe not very convincingly, to a monk called John of Fornsete or Forncett, which I understand is a place in Norfolk. Its date? About 1250, maybe a little earlier.

The only Western music that survives - apart from this song - from the 13th century is church music, at that time either plainchant or primitive attempts at harmony that sound exceptionally barbaric to our ears. That this solitary, highly-crafted, musicianly jewel should exist in such a sludge is one of the mysteries of music, suggesting that alongside the church music of the time there were very lively secular developments that remain to be discovered.

I spent a long time trying to find a reasonable performance on YouTube, and came up with the one above, sung by a lively Australian group (not unlike Les Jeudistes) called Lumina Vocal Ensemble, for the especial delight of Dinahmow. Most other performances are dreadful (including the especially dire The Wicker Man adaptation) and you wonder at the gross conceit of some people that they dare put their feeble caterwaulings on public display.

* Some who should know better translate 'everteth' as 'fart', God knows why. If John of Forncett had meant 'fart' he would have written 'bucke farteth'. It's not as if this word didn't exist in the 13th century. The word 'fart' is even older than 'Norfolk', where I believe the phenomenon is unknown.


Z said...

I've always been fond of this version of the tune - - I have lowbrow tendencies, of course.

In Norfolk, occasional references are made to miasma, but a possible cause is never mentioned,

Dave said...

Or Nordfolc, as the Domesday Book has it.

Rog said...

To complete the Norfolk 'n Good triumvirate here I am. Nothing intelligent to contribute but that has never held me back before.

I thought it read "Sumner is Icumen In" and was concerned that it was the dreaded Sting showing off his Tantric abilities.

There's a lot of old farts in Norfolk.

Christopher said...

Dear friends, thank you for these very pertinent observations. I wonder if you would all like to come to tea this afternoon?

Christopher said...

PS ...and those that want can watch my Bagpuss videos. Thanks, Z, lots of happy 80s memories, watching these with the kids.

Tenon_Saw said...

[I've always thought it meant 'fart'.]
Is this Medieval intonation, perhaps?

dinahmow said...

Why! All one needs to do is leave a gentle hint in comments...
Lovely, Christopher. Thankyou.

PS. I'd love to come to tea and watch dear old Bagpuss.Bit strapped;could you lend me the bus fare?

Sarah said... i was listening to this, No 2 child shouted....'What the f... is that racket' !

Christopher said...

TS: *suppresses childish urge to make feeble joke about ars nova*

DM/MIT: Postal order for 2/6 on its way to you. Bagpuss on hold.

Sah: Well, he's only little...

english inukshuk said...

just off to make a delicious cup of tea, pick up a slice of freshly baked shortbread and then shall return to listen to your toon. . .

. . .for which I shall thank you in advance

as I'm sure it'll be wonderful


Christopher said...

Freshly baked shortbread! Mmm! Ne swik thou never nu!

english inukshuk said...

(have discovered a fool-proof recipe, totally melt-in-the-mouth and absolutely yummy everytime)(a little like Mr Scurra's Kronicles then)(merry sing cuckoo!)


Christopher said...

Oh dear. An embarras de richesses. How could I choose between your shortbread (not that you've offered any) and Vicus' krunchy kronicles? Is this not a Golden Age?

Spadoman said...

My dear friend. I apologize for being absent from your fabulous page. No excuse except I've been minding my own business and it has kept me away.
You are a plethora of information on many subjects and this post seals the deal on the musicologist level. (Now get busy because I expect to know where the word fart came from)
Would love to hear your group perform anything!
Now, I'll have to write and teach you one that you may not know.
Take care and be well.


Z said...

Thank you very much for the delicious tea. Sorry to have eaten quite so much, but I never did learn to say "no."

Christopher said...

A great pleasure, Z, tho' I must say I had some difficulty, while your mouth was full, in telling whether you were singing 'Feed me till I want no more' or 'I'm jist a girl who cain't say No'. I think the latter. A girl who couldn't say Yes wouldn't be much cop.

Z said...

The fairy cakes decorated with cherries, roses and berries were such a charming touch. How could I resist?

letouttoplay said...

I love a bit of barbaric myself.
However the Lumina version is delicious.
And now I know what the monks of reading were doing while they fished the Bucklebury ponds.

Christopher said...

Mig: How did I come to miss this gem? - Ah, of course, we were away in Scotland.