Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English (revised and updated)

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song that is both English and 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 and music, but the music itself poses many problems of interpretation. We begin with a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, continuing with a short survey of the social background and a step by step reconstruction of the music. Originally published in February 2016, this is a completely revised account, with a reworked rendering of the melody and a new performance video of Mirie, arranged for voice and medieval harp.  Read more

Performing medieval music. Part 3: The medieval style

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the third of three articles on this topic for medieval music, aiming to be practical guides with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article discussed historical instrument combinations and the second how to create polyphonic accompaniments for music written monophonically. This third and last article discusses a wide variety of questions of style: the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) notation of the troubadours; the role of the voice and instruments; ornamentation; questions of intelligibility, language and sung translations; musical preludes and postludes; and the effect of the various functions of music on the way it is performed.

This article features a video of Martin Carthy singing a traditional English song on the basis that his free style, with the voice leading and guitar following, each verse phrased differently, so free that it is mensurally unwritable, may have something important to tell us about the historical performance of troubadour songs.

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Performing medieval music. Part 2: Turning monophony into polyphony

Harp, vielle and citole in the Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300-1350.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the second of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern harmony and medieval polyphony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel movement, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.

For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are also links to 16 illustrative videos, beginning with participants at Ian Pittaway’s workshop, Turning monophony into polyphony, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.

The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.

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Performing medieval music. Part 1: Instrumentation

Double recorder (then called a pipe or flute), gittern and three singers in Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1280-1344.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

Surprising songs of sentient statues: the Virgin, Venus, and Jason and the Argonauts (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 6/6)

Three statues which live and move in their stories: the Virgin Mary and Jesus (c. 1260–80, made in Paris), Talos (bronze giant in the Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts) and Venus (2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek original).

In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary by King Alfonso X and his court, 1257–83, there is a large group of songs featuring statues of Mary which talk, move, give protection, heal, and enact terrible acts of violence.

This article, the last in a series of six exploring the Cantigas, describes these surprising songs of sentient statues, placing them in the context of medieval beliefs about holy effigies and the long history of mythical moving images, including the goddess Venus, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Pinocchio, and some current controversies.   

We begin with a performance of Cantiga 42 on voice and vielle (medieval fiddle), in which a jealous Mary, inhabiting her statue, sends a man running terrified from his bed on his wedding night.

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The medieval portative organ: an interview with Cristina Alís Raurich

Cristina Alís Raurich is a historical musician and researcher who specialises in keyboards of the middle ages and early renaissance: portative organ, positive organ, clavicimbalum, and clavicytherium. Not only is Cristina a musician of consummate skill, her love for her instruments and specialism is obvious and infectious: rarely have I seen anyone play and talk about music with such transparent joy. This I discovered when we met at the second Medieval Music in the Dales, held at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, England, in 2017, where she gave a presentation on the history of the portative organ; performed in the duo, Sonus Hyspaniae, on portative organ and percussion, with Raúl Lacilla on musa (medieval bagpipe) and frestel (medieval Pan pipe); and kindly agreed to the following interview for Early Music Muse.

Cristina performs internationally solo and with medieval music groups Magister Petrus, La Douce Semblance, Le Souvenir, Carmina Harmonica, Sonus Hyspaniae and Hamelin Consort; and gives courses and master classes on medieval music and medieval keyboards around Europe. She is assistant director and faculty member of Medieval Music Besalú, the international course on medieval music performance in Besalú, Catalonia, a teacher at the Centre International de Musiques Médiévales de Montpellier, France, and currently a doctoral student at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

In this interview, Cristina discusses how she discovered medieval keyboards; her research into the portative organ and her commissioning of the only 13th century reconstruction; its playing techniques within the framework of medieval musical styles; its performance context in the middle ages; and performance presentation to a modern audience.

This article includes three videos of Cristina playing: table organ, clavicytherium, and portative organ.

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“Infidels”, “traitors” and “that ugly bearded crew”: fear and loathing in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 5/6)

A devil takes a Jew to hell in an illustration from CSM 34.

King Alfonso X, chief author of the 13th century songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), is presented in modern literature as a wise, tolerant king who took steps to create a multicultural court of Christians, Jews and Moors, and a liberal kingdom of learning. Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? This article examines the evidence within the Cantigas and the king’s law codes, seen within the wider context of contemporaneous European culture.

This is the fifth of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, composed between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs.

We begin with an instrumental version of CSM 344: The miraculous night of peace, played on medieval harp. This Cantiga which tells the story of the Virgin preventing violence between two groups of soldiers, one Christian and the other Moorish.

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The animated chop of meat (and other miraculous marvels): pilgrimage songs in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 4/6)

The miraculous chop of meat is hung at Mary’s altar – a miniature decorating Cantiga 159.

What do an animated chop of meat, a man who wouldn’t hang, a talking sheep, a flying chair, a life-saving chemise, and a shoe that heals by being rubbed on the face have in common? They all appear in the pilgrimage songs of the 13th century Iberian songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary). This is arguably the most important collection of medieval music, and certainly one of the largest, with 420 songs, illustrated with vibrant illuminations of the songs and court musicians. This is the fourth in a series of six articles about the Cantigas.

In these songs there are constant references to pilgrimage, reflecting its importance in medieval Christianity generally. Pilgrimage represents the utter dependence of believers on divine favour for their physical health, their emotional dependence on divine approval, and their dependence on heaven’s judgement for their eternal fate. Holy relics, which proliferated in the period prior to the Cantigas, play a talisman-like role and bring all three themes together.

This article explores the many pilgrimage themes in the Cantigas, beginning with a live performance of Cantiga 159, featuring an animated pork chop.

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Edi beo þu heuene quene: a love song by any name

The Virgin of Toulouse, Notre Dame de Grasse (Our Lady of Grace), 1451-1500, now in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France.Edi beo þu heuene quene is a 13th century English song in praise of the Virgin Mary, written in Middle English. It expresses familiarity in relationship with Mary and even romantic attachment; and the two part harmony sounds remarkably sweet and modern. This article explores why this is so, placing this beautiful song in its three contexts – lyrical, musical and historical – with a video of the song sung by The Night Watch, accompanied by gittern and citole.

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The Virgin’s vengeance and Regina’s rewards: the surprising character of Mary in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 3/6)

An artist paints a church wall in CSM 74, Mary and child on the left and the devil on the right.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria is arguably one of the most important collections of medieval songs, and certainly one of the largest. Composed between 1257 and 1283 by the Iberian King Alfonso X and his courtiers, they are largely versifications in song of the miracle stories of the Virgin Mary circulating in 13th century Europe. After exploring the impact of the troubadours on the Catholic Church’s cult of the Virgin in the first article, and the profound influence of the troubadours and the church on Alfonso’s Cantigas in the second article, this third article examines the character of the Virgin as represented in the manuscripts’ miracle stories and praise songs. Via Fatal Attraction, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, characters in Batman, George Orwell’s 1984, bestiaries, psychotherapy and the Symbionese Liberation Army, we discover that the chief characteristics of the Virgin are jealousy, vengeance and the demand for obeisance. How does such a problematic role model affect the kingship of Alfonso? And how does this influence the content of the songs?

We begin with a video of Cantiga 173: The blessings of Maria ~ or ~ The kidney stone Cantiga, sung in English with medieval harp and fiddle.

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“I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour”: the composition of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 2/6)

King Alfonso instructs his musicians and dancers to praise the Virgin and Child, an illustration for Cantiga de Santa Maria 120.

This is the second of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and his assistants between 1257 and 1283. In the first article, we traced the development of troubadour courtly love from the late 11th century to the end of the 13th century. The Roman Catholic Church’s response to the influence of what they perceived as troubadour immorality was to promote the Virgin Mary as the central figure of Christian chaste devotion. This was the faith that Alfonso X of Castile inherited.

Alfonso’s love of music meant that he was keen to have troubadours in his court, while also criticising them and describing himself as one. This second article explains why. First, an outline of Alfonso’s literary life before the Cantigas, illustrating that he was already steeped in troubadour literary forms prior to declaring himself Mary’s troubadour; then an exploration of Alfonso’s absorbing and adapting of courtly love themes for his religious and political ends in his songs of the Virgin.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 363, the song-story of a troubadour in trouble and in prison, who only escapes by dedicating himself to the Virgin.

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“Why do you not praise her?”: the Virgin Mary and the troubadours (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 1/6)

Troubadour Jaufré Rudel dying in the arms of the countess of Tripoli, from a 13th century French manuscript (BnF ms. 854, folio 121v).

This is the first of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and unnamed assistants between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These six articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs, and will be followed by two stand-alone articles about the historical principles upon which a medieval musical arrangement may be made, focussing primarily on the Cantigas.

In order to understand the background to the Cantigas de Santa Maria, we must first appreciate a medieval musical movement which may at first appear unrelated, but which is fundamental to both the music and theology of Alfonso’s compositions: the troubadour tradition. In this article, we see that troubadour influence not only spread well beyond its home in Occitania (southern France), it had a profound effect upon the Catholic faith Alfonso inherited. The Catholic response to troubadour songs, which the church perceived as spiritually corrupt, was to develop a new Mariology, a major shift at the heart of Catholic worship. It was within this context that Alfonso composed the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 260, which praises the Virgin in terms that exactly mirror troubadour courtly love, while also criticising troubadours for not praising her.

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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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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 the violin 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 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, which this article attempts to resolve. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This page 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. The origins of the rebec are reputedly 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, a relative of the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.

This article begins with a video of a rebec / gittern pairing, playing an early 15th century song.

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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 with a complete lyric 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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