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.
This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.
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.
The 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?
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
Greensleeves is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. This is a song first published in 1580, its tune used for a wide variety of other 16th and 17th century broadside ballads; used as the basis for virtuoso lute playing; that William Shakespeare used for a sophisticated joke; a tune that John Playford published for dancing to; that morris dancers still jig and kick bottoms to; that has become a Christmas favourite; and that pop singers continue to sing. This is the second of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology, its true history, and video examples of its musical transformations.