Monday, January 5, 8280

Anon English (b. c. 1280) - Sumer Is Icumen In

England (c. 1280) - Sumer Is Icumen In (1310)

Sumer Is Icumen In is a medieval English round, and possibly the oldest such example of counterpoint in existence. The title might be translated as "Summer has come in" or "Summer has arrived," though in Middle English the word summer extends over a longer period than the modern term.

The round is sometimes known as the Reading rota because the manuscript comes from Reading Abbey though it may not have been written there. It is the oldest piece of six-part polyphonic music. Its composer is anonymous, possibly W. de Wycombe, and it is estimated to date from around 1210-1260. The manuscript is now at the British Library. The language is Middle English, more exactly Wessex dialect.


W. de Wycombe (Wicumbe, and perhaps Whichbury) (late 13th century) was an English composer and copyist of the Medieval era. He was precentor of the priory of Leominster in Herefordshire. He may have been the composer of the most famous tune from medieval England, Sumer is icumen in, though the identification is considered by most scholars to be tenuous.

Wycombe's main period of activity was probably the 1270's and 1280's. He is best known as the composer of polyphonic alleluias. Over 40 settings have been identified in several sources, a group of compositions almost equal in size to that of Léonin, the earlier composer of the French Notre Dame school; however only one of the 40 can be restored completely: the others exist only in fragments. Some of his work appears in the Worcester Fragments, a collection of 59 manuscript leaves which represents about a third of the total surviving polyphony from England in the 1200's.

Each of Wycombe's alleluias is in four parts. The second and fourth contain the solo respond and verse sections, while the first and third consist of free polyphony. Stylistically they are similar to the Reading Rota itself (Sumer is icumen in), emphasizing tonic and supertonic, and showing the English preference for the harmonic interval of the third.


The original manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In is written in a precursor of modern musical notation, featuring no less than six staff lines.

To sing as a round, one singer would begin at the beginning, and a second would start at the beginning as the first got to the point marked with the red cross. The length between the start and the cross corresponds to the modern notion of a bar, and the main verse comprises six phrases spread over twelve such bars.

In addition, there are two lines marked "Pes," two bars each, that are meant to be sung together repeatedly underneath the main verse. These instructions are included (in Latin) in the manuscript itself.

The better-known lyrics for this piece are in Middle English, and comprise a song of spring (reverdie):

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu, cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Summer is a comin' in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
Groweth seed and bloweth mead [meadow]
And springth the wood anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Cow after calf moos
Bullock stirs, the buck-goat turns,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
And stop? You never knew.
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

This work is also one of the earliest examples of music with both religious and secular lyrics, though the secular ones are perhaps better known. It is not clear which came first, but the religious lyrics, in Latin, are a reflection on the sacrifice of the Crucifixion.

Perspice Christicola
que dignacio
Celicus agricola
pro uitis vicio
non parcens exposuit mortis exicio
Qui captiuos semiuiuos a supplicio
Vite donat et secum coronat
in celi solio

Observe, Christian, such honour!
The heavenly farmer,
due to a defect in the vine,
not sparing the Son,
exposed him to the destruction of death.
To the captives half-dead from torment,
He gives them life and crowns them with himself
on the throne of heaven.

The piece was parodied in Ancient Music by Ezra Pound

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

The song is also parodied by P. D. Q. Bach as Summer is a cumin seed for the penultimate movement of his Grand Oratorio The Seasonings.

Mark Alburger's Mary Variations includes the movement Mary Is Icumen In, which maps Lowell Mason's Mary Had a Little Lamb over the medieval round.

[8283 Gervais du Bus / 8280 Sumer / 8274 Jehan de l'Escurel]