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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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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