Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …

It seems like an unlikely coupling, two songs written in a 13th century manuscript to the same music: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free captives and crown them in heaven. Do the Middle English Sumer is icumen in and the Latin Perspice Christicola really belong together? Evidence of scribal interference suggests they make an uneasy pair.

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The trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

wedding1500The trees they do grow high is an originally Scottish ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the U.S.A. from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (based on an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the mere claims from the substantiated evidence.

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Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text. With a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, a short survey of the social background, a step by step reconstruction of the music, and a video with medieval harp accompaniment of the reconstructed song.

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The Lyke-Wake Dirge: the revival of an Elizabethan song of the afterlife

effigyThe Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.

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On the (medieval) fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle

WaltersMuseumW37f.20vA mention of the violin today is likely to conjure up images of a classical, orchestral, or jazz musician, whereas the word fiddle is more likely to suggest a traditional or folk musician, even though they’re essentially the same instrument, set up differently to suit different styles of playing. This class-based relegation of the term fiddle was not always so. Centuries before the creation of either the violin or the viola da gamba it eventually supplanted, there was the medieval fiddle, also known by its French name, the vielle. This brief introduction demonstrates that the playing style and sound of the medieval fiddle had more in common with the hurdy gurdy and the crwth (bowed lyre) than the modern violin. Includes illustrations and video examples.

This is one of two editions of this article, being a short introduction to the vielle, intended for the general reader. There is a longer version, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, which has a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.  

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The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle

QueenMaryPsalter.Royal2BVIIf.174The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for religious and secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This article provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.

There are two editions of this article. This one included detailed analysis. For an introduction for the general reader, go to On the (medieval) fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.

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The rebec: a short history from court to street

The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.

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The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.

There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery. Its name probably originates in religious use, as an accompaniment to singing songs from the psalms, known as psalmody and sung from a psalter, thus the psaltery. The word is from the Old English psealm or salm and Old French psaume or saume, derived from Church Latin psalmus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a harp, and psallein, to pluck on a stringed instrument. Appearing in Europe from the 11th century, the psaltery’s wire strings rang out in religious and secular contexts until around 1500, with a little evidence of a pocket of survival for a few decades after that. Its regular appearance in manuscript iconography, church iconography and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are evidence of its wide use and appeal. Its influence and evolution is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.

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Bird on a briar: interpreting medieval notation, with a HIP harp arrangement

bird14thcenturyPutting aside the notion of being historically authentic but embracing the idea of being historically informed, the aim is to arrive at a performable and historically justifiable arrangement of the problematic song, bryd one brere, from c. 1290–1320. This is the oldest surviving secular love song in the English language and so it is early music gold-dust, but it does have some severe holes: it is for two voices, but one voice is missing; and some of the roughly-written notation is difficult to decipher. What follows is not the only possible musical solution; but on this journey I’ll take you through the process step by step, so you can decide for yourself if you’re convinced. I’ll also delve a little into the background of the song, arguing that it is clearly influenced by the courtly love tradition of the troubadours and trouvères. The article starts with a video performance on voice and medieval harp.

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The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music

A donkey plays bray harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.
A donkey plays harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.

The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument – yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.

This article traces the idea behind the bray harp, its origins and popular rise. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels, and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.

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Coventry Carol: the power of a song

Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.
Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.

Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. They were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.

My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.

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The oud: a short guide to a long history

Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1260–80.
Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1260–80.

The Arabian oud, or al ‘ud, is probably best known in the west for being the predecessor of the European lute; but it does have an independent life of its own in the history of early music, rooted in medieval cultural exchange between east and west. We know, for example, that ouds played an important part in the musical life of the royal court of Spain in the 13th century and, by extension, almost certainly Spanish musical life in general. But was the oud fretted, unfretted, or both? How did western musicians come to play an eastern instrument? And did the oud really originate in desiccated human remains?

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Music of the renaissance: a whistle-stop tour

RenaissancePeriodThe renaissance marked a turning point for European culture. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, its influence spread across Europe, affecting all aspects of culture, including music. But it was in England that the sound of the renaissance first developed, spreading out to Burgundy, Italy, and then back to England in new forms. The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy profoundly affected music-making, with musicians in households now able to write down music, use the new printed songbooks of composers such as John Dowland, and sing from broadside ballad sheets sold in the street. The spread of printing and literacy also affects our own knowledge of the period, with surviving instructions for dances and a wealth of music. Includes 14 active links to videos of musical examples, illustrating the text.

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The gemshorn: a (necessarily) short history

The haunting sound of the gemshorn has played a small part in the early music revival. Evidence for its historical use is sparse, scattered thinly from the late middle ages or early renaissance to the first days of the baroque period, and only within Germany. This ocarina made of goat horn was included in the completist musical lexicographies of Sebastian Virdung, 1511, and Michael Praetorius, 1618, and was deemed recognisable enough to be played by the figure of death in a series of woodcuts in 1488. This article traces what we know about the gemshorn, comparing the evidence with its use in the early music revival.

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The gittern: a short history

Angelic gittern player, from the Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c. 1300–1325. The gittern was the most important stringed instrument of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts from the 11th century onwards and one surviving instrument of the mid–15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. Includes a video of a French estampie played on gittern.

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Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

medievaldancers110r_0The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?

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The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 1 of 3: The pre-history of the mandore

The history of a stunning 17th(?) century instrument, observations on its lutherie, and questions over its dating.

The Boissart mandore, dated by the V&A to 1640. (As with all pictures, click for higher resolution view.)
The Boissart mandore, dated by the V&A to 1640. Photograph by Ian Pittaway, included courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (All pictures, click for higher resolution view.)

In the family of renaissance plucked instruments, the mandore is the result of a union between two mediaeval string families: the oud and the lute on one side, and the gittern on the other. The resulting offspring is a small instrument with a musically significant (but alas now largely unplayed) surviving repertoire. Some actual instruments survive, and there is no doubt that the most exquisite of these is the beautiful Boissart mandore in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This article and two to follow will: (1) trace the pre-history of the mandore; (2) examine the V&A’s beautiful Boissart mandore and attempt to reconstruct its personal history for, as far as I know, the first time; (3) describe the making of a new mandore based on the Boissart model.

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