Thursday, 23 January 2014

Sumer is Icumen In

Our soprano is in Thailand for two and a half months, so we have been looking for three part songs that we can sing with Alto, Tenor and Bass.  Monteverdi’s Scherzi Musicali are well worth investigating, and of course there are also rounds that are entertaining and fun to sing with three voices.   
“Sumer Is Icumen In” was written in the early 13th Century and the manuscript is in the British Library. On a misty January morning, summer seems a long way away but that doesn’t mean we can’t sing about it and just imagine what the coming of spring must have meant to the people of the medieval era.

The block of smaller text in black gives instructions on how to perform it.
The script in red is a sacred Latin text which is not a translation of the original.
In 13th Century England they spoke Middle English, the language of Chaucer. 

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calue cu;
Bulluc sterteth,
Bucke uerteth,

Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu;
Ne swik thu naver nu.

Sing, cuccu, nu; sing, cuccu;
Sing, cuccu; sing, cuccu, nu!

Having heard, years ago, someone reading “The Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle EnglishI knew that its pronunciation was well understood and tried to find a pronunciation guide.  I found this.

But I quickly got lost in the plethora of scholarly explanations of how English evolved between the 12th and 16th centuries, including topics such as the Great Vowel Shift, as well as trying to read things written in the International Phonetic Alphabet IPA.  

Pausing to look at this interactive teaching resource from Harvard I eventually I found the version of “Sumer Is Icumen In” by the Hilliard Ensemble, which sounded absolutely right.  I then later discovered that next to the manuscript in the British Library there’s an audio post where you can hear them singing whilst you follow the manuscript. That recommendation was good enough for me!

It’s surprisingly difficult to learn a new phonology of vowel sounds.  Singing in Italian, a language that I don’t speak seems much easier, although I’m sure it could be much better.  It helps a lot if you have some knowledge of other languages however basic. 

In our quartet "Le Chant de la Cรจre" our bass speaks several European languages and is managing well in Middle English by imitating me.  Our soprano is Dutch but has lived in France for most of her adult life and also knows some German and English so, when she returns in February, I’m sure she will get to grips with it very well.  Our Alto, although she usually speaks English in received pronunciation, keeps reverting to her native West Country (Somerset), which even though “Sumer Is Icumen In” was written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English, is not right at all!

There are several versions of the sheet music and midi files on CPDL

We start it on C. You could of course sing it in a translated modern version but it’s so much less fun!  The text below is a translation of the original and is not intended to be sung!

Spring has arrived,
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting,

Sing merrily, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing well, cuckoo,
Never stop now.

Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;
Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Claudio Abbado - A Legacy for Future Generations

I consider myself lucky to have been to several of Claudio Abbado’s concerts.  I never had the chance to meet him but he had the air of a modest and gentle person and, although he was a public figure, he valued his privacy.  In his later years, after treatment for cancer, he was a rather slight presence on the podium and not at all conventionally charismatic and outgoing like Bernstein or (dare I say it) Karajan but, when conducting and with his supreme ability to convey what he wanted to his players, he didn't need any of the mannerisms of the great conductors of earlier generations. 

He earned the appreciation of music lovers worldwide with his empathy with Mahler’s compositions. His generosity of spirit and his sensitivity in interpreting their many twists and turns, as well as his supreme musicianship, created unforgettable performances. Even music critics were bowled over by his later concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Fortunately, recordings of these are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. 

He may have been sparing with his public pronouncements, but whilst conducting he was very generous with his emotions.  It was his ability to explore and communicate the emotional content of musical compositions that set him above many others of his generation and made him loved by the public and admired by the professionals. 

As he said in an interview for Medici TV, Hearing the Silence. 

"In the last few years I have realized one thing very clearly: The more you give, the more you get in return. This is as true of music as of anything else".

Although his global reputation allowed him to conduct the major American orchestras, he worked most extensively with the best European orchestras and he was able to build long term relationships with them so that they knew exactly what he wanted.  He also created youth orchestras such as the European Community Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester and took them on tour.

He valued silence before and after performing a piece.  In 1994 I saw him keep the entire Albert Hall silent for more than twenty seconds at the end of Mahler’s 9th Symphony.   It felt like twenty minutes and was followed by a standing ovation.

But it wasn't just Mahler that inspired him and he could bring his creative intensity to even the most well known pieces.

I was very sad to hear that he had passed away on 20th January 2014, and I’m sorry that I’ll never have a chance to see him performing again, but he has left us a legacy of recordings and videos which will set the standard for interpreters of the late romantic repertoire for decades.

See also 
Mahler - A Trancendental Experience 
Two Reviews of Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler 9th

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Black Scabbard Fillets with a Coriander, Garlic and Lime Pesto

Black Scabbard, known as Sabre in French, is a fish which is sometimes sold in our local supermarket in the form of long fillets without skin.  It is a deep sea fish with a rather frightening appearance.

I bought two fillets yesterday weighing a little more than half a kilogram in total.  Each one was about 18 inches long (500mm) and two to three inches wide (50 to 75mm).  I had intended to make a couple of roulades (rolls) holding them together with bamboo skewers.  Then I remembered another recipe that I enjoy, which makes use of grilled monkfish wrapped in pancetta and so I bought some thinly sliced, uncooked, smoked ham.  Passing the vegetable counter I bought some endives (chicory), a lime and some fresh coriander.

At home I decided that if I rolled up the ham inside the fish it wouldn't cook but go soggy, so instead I made a pesto of several large cloves of garlic, the zest of a lime, some finely chopped coriander, salt, pepper, with a little olive oil and the juice of half a lime, to spread on half of each fillet.  Then I folded them over and cut through the folded end to make two long “sandwiches” of fish.  I laid ham along the top and cut each of them across the middle to make four pieces which would fit in a rectangular dish in the oven.

I chopped up a large endive into smallish pieces, cut up some butternut squash into chip shaped pieces (not thin like French fries) and laid these vegetables in the bottom of the dish.  I put the fish on top and drizzled it all with olive oil.  I covered the dish with aluminium foil and cooked it in the oven for about 20 minutes at gas mark 5, then took the foil off and gave it about another ten minutes. (All times are approximate and depend on your oven temperature.  Check the fish and vegetables with a blunt skewer, if it goes in easily they are ready). 

The vegetables, the fish and the pesto made a lovely sauce which needed nothing else.  A few black olives would have added to the visual appeal.

If I had bothered to cook rice or potatoes the dish would have easily been enough for four, but as it was we finished it between the two of us.  The fish was quite firm, without bones and it was very tasty!

I later realised that I had eaten sabre in Madeira where it is known as espada (scabbard fish)  and was a favourite in the restaurants there.


Serves 4
600g Scabbard fish - in the form of two large fillets.
One or two Endives- depending on the size chopped into large pieces.
300g Butternut squash or pumpkin – cut into thick batons.
100g Uncooked smoked ham – in the form of thin slices.
4 or 5 chunky cloves of garlic – peeled and finely chopped, use a whole bulb if small.
Zest of one lime
Juice of half a lime
A bunch of fresh Coriander – finely chopped
Black olives – a small handful
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper