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 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

Westron wynde: a beautiful fragment of longing

SandroBotticelli.Zephyrus&Chloris.BirthOfVenus1484-86.The 16th century song, Westron wynde, is an expression of longing to be with one’s love. It is just one verse and melody in a manuscript from the court of King Henry VIII. Much ink has been fancifully spilled over the meaning of its four lines. This article traces the history of its treatment through renaissance masses, folk music and 20th century pop music; attempts to elucidate its meaning without fancy; and presents an arrangement to renaissance musical principles on bray harp.

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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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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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The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music

A donkey plays bray harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.
A donkey plays a harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.

The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument, yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.

This article traces the earliest evidence for the European harp, leading to the origins and popular rise of the bray harp specifically. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.

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