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!

1 comment:

  1. I went to the British Library in February 2014 hoping to see the manuscript but discovered that you have to register and prove your identity and address in a brief interview with an official. Since I didn't have those documents with me I gave up the attempt. Pity!