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

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.

16th and 17th centuries: broadside ballads “To the tune of …”

Samuel Pepys holding music, in a portrait by John Hayls in 1666. Pepys was an avid collector of broadside ballads, to the extent that his huge personal collection now forms an important corpus of our knowledge of the genre.
Samuel Pepys holding music in a portrait
by John Hayls, painted in 1666. Pepys was
an avid collector of broadside ballads, to
the extent that his huge personal collection
now forms an important corpus of our
knowledge of the genre.
(As with all pictures, click for larger view.)

Broadside ballads began to be printed in the 16th century, with their popular heyday in the 17th century. They consisted of a sheet of paper printed with the words to a song, a woodcut picture, and the name of a specified melody. Since ballad-printers could not guarantee that their customers could read music, the melody was indicated by the words, “To the tune of”. Ballad buyers would hear the song at the point of sale, as ballad-mongers stood in the street, singing their wares. Occasionally more than one tune was indicated, which suggests a rather liberal attitude to the melody. It was, after all, the words that ballad-mongers were selling, with the tune as a vehicle for them.

If a tune was popular, it remained in circulation for many years, sometimes decades, as the vehicle for many sets of song words. The effect of this was that one melody was sometimes known by several names. For example, when Greensleeves was published in 1580 it gained immediate popularity. It was used for the ballad, The Lord of Lorn, and the tune was thereafter also known by that title on other broadsides. By the same process, the tune was also known as The Bonny Blacksmith, or Which nobody can deny, or In Rome there is a most fearful rout, being the titles of other ballads which carried the tune and subsequently became associated with it. The ballad, Fortune my foe, first published as a broadside in 1590, went through the same process. This extremely popular tune was used for dozens of other ballads, and became known by the title of two other songs it was used for, Aim not too high and Doctor Faustus. There are many, many more examples since, with broadside ballads, the renaming of a tune through its association with multiple sets of words was common practice.

Music theorists have a term for this: contrafactum (singular) or contrafacta (plural), the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music. As well as having the function of helping ballad-mongers make money in the renaissance and baroque periods by fitting new words to popular and familiar tunes, contrafacta had two other important and opposite functions: for critics of the church to write parodies of religious music; and for the church to co-opt and moralise the songs of the wayward and ungodly. As we’ll see, it could arguably have another important function for singers of early music today, as in the past.

The salutacyon / Bryng us in good ale, c. 1460–90: let’s drink to the Virgin Mary 

Before the rise of Tudor literacy and therefore the economic viability of broadsides, the practice of one song to the tune of another was already well-established. One of the better-known examples of two songs sharing the same melody is the pairing of the salutacyon, a carol about the annunciation, and Bryng us in good ale, a carol about getting drunk, performed back to back in the film below.

The salutacyon and Bryng us in good ale, performed on bray harp by Ian Pittaway. Click picture to play – opens in new window.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
One song, Bryng us in good ale, performed to the tune of another,
the salutacyon, played on bray harp by Ian Pittaway.

The salutacyon and Bryng us in good ale appear in a manuscript originating in the monastery of Bury Saint Edmunds, dated c. 1460-90, now in the Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. Poet. e. I. It includes 76 items, religious songs and secular songs, but only a few complete with music.

Both The salutacyon and Bryng us in good ale are carols. Evidenced from the 12th century, carols were round dances sung by a ring-leader. They were loved by the laity and feared by the clergy, who associated carols with loose living, immorality and Satanic rituals. This is why carollers were depicted dancing naked in a Parisian manuscript version of Augustine’s City of God (now owned by The National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague, RMMW, 10 A 11), created circa 1475 and 1478–1480, illustrated contemporaneously with the songs under discussion. To counteract the ‘evil’ of secular carolling, Christian clergy in the 14th and 15th centuries wrote their own religious carols to defuse their perceived devilishness and co-opt the tradition into approved ecclesiastical strictures.


Carols were composed for many secular and religious occasions. The subject of the salutacyon is the annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s visitation to Mary to tell her she’ll give birth to Jesus, and thus it is a new year carol. Due to calendar changes, the medieval European Christian new year was, at various times, celebrated on 25th December, 1st March, 25th March, and Easter. In the period of this manuscript, c. 1460–90, the first day of the Christian new year was the Feast of the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day, on 25th March. The logic was that since the annunciation begins the Christian story then it should also begin the Christian calendar. (It would not be until 1582 that Gregorian calendar reform fixed new year’s day at 1st January, and it would not be until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was fully adopted in England.)

Nowell nowell nowell this is the salutacyon of the angel gabryell, commonly known today as The Salutation or The Salutation Carol, has seven verses. Being a carol, the burden or refrain comes first:

Nowell nowell nowell this is the salutacyon of the angel gabryell

Tydyngs trew ther be cum new sent frome the trinnite
be gabryell to nazareth city of galile
a clen mayden and pure virgin thorow her humylyte
hath conceyvid the person seconde in deyte

On the same page, underneath the music and the words to the burden and first verse, the anonymous scribe has written a note which shows the same liberal attitude as the ballad writers to fitting words to tunes:

Thys is the tewn for the song foloyng yf so be that ye wyll haue a nother tewyn it may be at yowr plesur for I haue set all the song.

There follows, in darker ink, the words to the burden of another song:

Bryng us in good ale and bryng us in good ale
Fore owr blyssyd lady sake bryng us in good ale

Over the page we have the verses, beginning:

Bryng us no browne bred fore that is mad of brane
nore bryng us in no whyt bred fore therin is no g[r?]ane

The manuscript page of the salutacyon / Bryng us in good ale, c. 1460–90.

The rest of the verses make the point repeatedly and humorously. Bring us in no bread, beef, bacon, mutton, tripe, eggs, butter, pork, puddings, venison, capons, or duck: bring us only good ale. So it appears to be a secular drinking song, except for the reason the singer and drinking companions want no food and only alcohol: “for our blessed Lady’s sake”!

The norm for modern-day early music revivalists is to sing these two songs to the same melody. We have some of the words and the music to the salutacyon, followed by a note that has been taken to mean this is also the music for the song that follows, Bryng us in good ale. However, the second scribe has added fo 10 with darker ink in the margin, so the complete text reads:

Thys is the tewn for the song foloyng fo[rward] 10 [leaves] yf so be that ye wyll haue a nother tewyn it may be at yowr plesur for I haue set all the song.

The remaining verses of the salutacyon are indeed written 10 leaves on, indicating that the first scribe accidentally missed a few pages or that new pages were later inserted, subsequently made clear by the second scribe. There is therefore no connection between the music of the salutacyon and good ale: “Thys is the tewn for the song foloyng fo[rward] 10 [leaves]” indicates that the rest of the verses for the salutacyon are 10 leaves on. Bryng us in good ale is without written music, in common with most songs in the manuscript.

This lack of melodic connection is confirmed by the problem that good ale only fits the salutacyon melody by missing out part of the tune, omitting the entire melody of the salutacyon’s burden, instead using the last part of the verse melody for the good ale refrain. This way it does fit but, since music has to be omitted, it is a major fudge. Both songs are in other manuscripts, good ale always without music, so that doesn’t help. The fact that the whole refrain of the salutacyon has to be omitted to fit the words of good ale, and that the second scribe makes clear that the songs are unconnected, removes the case for contrafactum in this instance.

Be that as it may, I do not want to leave the excellent Bryng us in good ale unsung, so I would rather have the fudge and sing it. Since the scribe of the salutacyon wrote “so be that ye wyll haue a nother tewyn it may be at yowr plesur”, I don’t think he would have thought it an issue.

Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola, c. 1250 – summer joy or Jesus’ sacrifice

Sumer is icumen in, folio 11v of the Harley 978 manuscript.
Sumer is icumen in,
folio 11v of the Harley 978 manuscript.

The second earliest complete surviving secular song in the English language, Sumer is icumen in (about which there is a full article here), was written in a Wessex dialect of Middle English in what is now the Harley 978 manuscript, c. 1250, found in Reading Abbey and now in the British Library. The song is the only material in the source in Middle English, the rest comprising Latin and French texts, a miscellany including religious music, medical material, satires from goliards (see below), the earliest and best text of the lais (narrative poems in octosyllabic couplets) of Marie de France, and a French poem on hawking.

We have the music and two sets of words for the song, the secular Sumer in Middle English and a devotional song in Latin, Perspice christicola. They are unambiguously meant for the same tune, since both are written running under the same musical notation, the words helpfully written in contrasting black and red ink so that the singer cannot mix up the lyrics.

In black ink, Sumer is icumen in describes the joys of summer’s arrival: cuckoo calls, blossoming meadows, ewes bleating after lambs, and so on. Underneath, in red ink, Perspice Christicola instructs the singer to observe how God sent Christ to destruction to free captives from the torments of hell and crown them in heaven. The contrast could hardly be greater, and illustrates the extremely wide use to which a single melody could be put.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
Ian Pittaway sings all six parts of Sumer is icumen in, including the
repeated cuckoo call changed by a later scribe. To read more, click here.

The goliards of the 12th and 13th centuries

In 12th and 13th century Europe, vernacular song traditions, penned in the common language of the people rather than in Latin, were beginning to emerge in writing. Among the earliest for which we have evidence are the songs of the goliards. However, Latin still predominated, and it was in Latin that the majority of the goliards’ secular songs spread through western Europe. Their two most important collections are the Carmina Cantabrigiensia, written in Germany in the 11th century (Latin for Songs from Cambridge, though the only connection with Cambridge is its current place of preservation), and the more well-known Carmina Burana, which shares some of the same material, written in Bavaria in the late 13th century (Latin for Songs from Beuern, short for Benediktbeuern in Bavaria, now preserved in Munich).

The goliards of France, England and Germany were clerici vagantes or clerici vagabundi, wandering clergy without financial support from the church. These itinerant clerics and students named themselves after Bishop Golias, a fallen priest who appears in many of their poems, probably a fictional character since he is likely to have been named after the Latin gula, meaning gluttony. The goliards are best known for their songs praising alcohol and debauchery and their scurrilous satirical verse. The anti-authority stance of these rebels was backed by their actions as well as their creative output: they were active in rioting, gambling and disrupting church services.

Goliard satirical songs were aimed almost exclusively at the church, including attacks on the pope. Their opposition was met with anti-goliard legislation from the Catholic authorities. In 1227, for example, the Council of Trier forbade priests to allow goliards to participate in chanting religious services; and in 1289 the church ordered that no man could be both a cleric and a goliard.

It is hardly a wonder that the Catholic Church responded in this way when goliards were publicly mocking its authority and practices. Their derision included parodying hymns and church services, rewriting the words and inverting their meaning. The Latin words of the 6th century Latin hymn for Prime (meaning first hour, a fixed time of prayer in the Divine Office, performed at first light) celebrates Christian control of emotions and appetites: potus cibique parcitas, restraint in food and drink. In the 12th century, the goliards satirised its opening lines to turn it into a drinking song, from …

The wheel of fortune from the Carmina Burana, a collection of goliard songs.
The wheel of fortune from the Carmina Burana,
a 13th century collection of goliard songs.

Iam lucis orto sidere
Deum precamur supplices
ut in diurnis actibus
Nos servet a nocentibus

Now dawning ray
God, we humbly pray
that you all the day
From harm, us keep away

… to …

Iam lucis orto sidere
statim oportet bibere
Bibamus nunc egregie
Et rebibamus hodie

Now dawning ray
we must drink straight away
We’ll drink it all in one
And drink more later on

The implications for early music practice

I expect that the I’m sorry I haven’t a clue team, if aware of the goliards, would be tickled at their songs and would thoroughly approve of the historical practice of one set of spoof words to the tune of another. I doubt that modern practitioners of musical parody such as Al Yankovic, Spinal Tap, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, The Rutles, The Barron Knights, and plenty more on YouTube, are aware that they stand in a long historical line, the evidence for which dates back nearly a millennium.

It’s not just the parodists whose practice goes back to the medieval period. As we have seen, there was a medieval, renaissance and baroque tradition of re-using a melody, and this same tradition continues today, though not always acknowledged. Some choice examples (with video links so you can hear for yourself): It’s Now or Never, Elvis Presley’s hit of 1960, used the melody of the Italian song of 1898, O Sole mio; the bass line and guitar chops of The Beatles’ 1966 song, Tax Man, was used by The Jam for their 1980 single, Start!; former Beatle George Harrison’s 1970 song, My Sweet Lord, used the tune of Ronnie Mack’s song, He’s So Fine, a hit in 1963 for The Chiffons; Bob Dylan’s Dream from his Freewheelin’ album, 1963, like many of his songs in this period, takes its melody from a traditional English song, in this case the 19th century ballad of Lord Franklin, which he heard from Martin Carthy; I Love To Boogie, a chart contender in 1976 for Marc Bolan and T.Rex, lifted its common-enough rhythm and blues chord structure but also its vocal line and even the guitar solo wholesale from Webb Pierce’s Teenage Boogie of 1956; and the riff of Marc Bolan’s 1971 T. Rex song, Get It On, was posthumously lifted by Oasis in 1996 for their Cigarettes and Alcohol. Such borrowing now extends to widepread sampling, such as the bass line in Queen & David Bowie’s Under Pressure (1982) re-used in Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby (1991), and the linking melody in ABBA’s Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie! (1979) redeployed in Madonna’s Hung Up (2005).

dd-4-22fortuneThis free use of available material follows in the footsteps of early music borrowing. Kalenda maya (May day), a song by the 12th century troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, was reputedly set to a dance melody he heard at court in Italy, and the same tune was used for an anonymous trouvère song, Souvent souspire mon cuer (Often sighs my heart), in a 14th century manuscript. In the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, musical borrowing was everywhere, to the point that, in the days before copyright (first enshrined in law in 1710), there was no distinction between crediting a composer either for an arrangement or an original composition. When, for example, lutenist John Dowland composed variations on the aforementioned broadside ballad tune, Fortune my foe, in the early 17th century (in the lute ms., Dd.4.22, c. 1615, pictured above right), it was the norm when it was credited as fortune by Jo: Dowland, rather than the more credit-conscious ‘variations by John Dowland on the anonymous broadside ballad tune, Fortune my foe’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, John Playford’s popular series of dance instructions, The Dancing Master, reused broadside ballad melodies and the tunes of theatrical songs for his new dances without comment or credit.

This has a practical application for modern performers of early music. There are many medieval, renaissance and baroque song words lacking melodies, and song melodies for which no lyrics survive. For obvious reasons of seeking broad historical and musical authenticity, there are not many willing to write new melodies for orphaned words, and it would be hard to imagine why anyone would write new words for an orphaned melody. As we have seen, there is a third way, more musically economical and more historically justifiable: fitting the lyric of one song without a melody to the tune of another of the same milieu, with or without existing words. This practice would be no different to reusing a tune you have heard and liked, as Raimbaut de Vaqueiras did with Kalenda maya in the 12th century; or having songs with two contrasting sets of words, such as Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola in the 13th century; or the constant reuse of established tunes to fit new words by the broadside lyricists of the 17th century.

If early musicians did it, why not players of early music now to revive song words without tunes? The singing of Bryng us in good ale to a modified version of the salutacyon melody is a case in point: there is no evidence that good ale was ever sung this way, but the tune is missing and there is more than ample historical evidence of contrafacta, so why not, when the alternative is to leave it unsung? After all, as much as practising notes, early music is noting practices, playing in the spirit of the traditions they played in.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

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

  • 23rd November 2016 at 4:58 pm

    While I agree that pairing orphaned lyrics with orphaned melodies can have satisfying results, I’m surprised by your assertion that “there are not many willing to write new melodies for orphaned words”. While it would be disingenuous to try to pass off such a hybrid as a true period song, you’ve made a good case for why the *idea* of writing a new melody for existing words or new words for an existing melody is very much authentic. If the modern composer or lyricist pays careful attention to matching the period style, why shouldn’t the result be successful? If anything, it stands a better chance of having pleasing prosody without contorting the lyrics to fit a mismatched rhythm (although I suppose that sort of contortion is actually authentic in and of itself).

  • 24th November 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Hello, Div. No one has suggested that anyone use a melody that doesn’t fit words! My statement that there are not many willing to write new melodies for orphaned medieval or renaissance words is simply a matter of fact, not a value judgement. I agree that a modern composer, if careful attention is paid to period style and modal rules, can have pleasing results as, for example, Robyn Syder has done for her trio, Briddes Roune. In doing so, Robyn is rare, and that is simply my point. Ian


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