Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

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

Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving complete English secular song, sung in this article’s video with all six voices indicated in the manuscript, Harley 978, circa 1250. Sumer and another song, Perspice Christicola, are laid out on the page to the same melody. It seems an unlikely coupling: 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 the captives of sin and crown them in heaven.

A later scribe returned to the page to add rhythm to the originally non-mensural (not indicating rhythm) notation and, in doing so, also changed the pitches of some notes. The changed notes are strategic, removing the musical cuckoo call, and this scribal interference suggests that the Middle English secular Sumer is icumen in and the Latin devotional Perspice Christicola made an uneasy pair. The version of Sumer recorded for this article restores the originally-written pitches, with the effect of reinstating the cascading cuckoo call, a central musical effect erased in the amended notes usually sung.

This is a revised version of an article originally published in February 2016.

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One song to the tune of another: early music common practice, 800 years before Humph

clue4
A classic Clue line-up, left to right: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Willie Rushton, Graeme Garden.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, will be familiar with the round, one song to the tune of another. The joke is predicated on us being used to thinking ‘These are the words and this is the tune and they belong together’. The uniting of these separated elements is made funnier by an extreme contrast of styles: the words of Girlfriend In A Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through The Tulips; the words of A Whiter Shade of Pale to the tune of The Muppet Show; the words of Ugly Duckling to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s Without You.

The stock-in-trade of the show is satire, the programme itself being a satire of panel games. Clue has been going since 1972, chaired for nearly all of that time by late jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttelton, known to cast and listeners as Humph. What Humph and the rest of the panel may not have known is that the principle of one song to the tune of another, with sometimes wildly contrasting words fitted to the same tune, was widely used in early music, the earliest evidence for which stretches back 800 years before even Humph was on air. This article, with illustrative music videos, traces the history of the practice from 16th and 17th century broadside ballads back to medieval carols, to songs with both secular and religious sets of words, and to the iconoclastic musical comedy of the goliards.

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