Ce fut en mai

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"Ce fut en mai"
by Moniot d'Arras
Fountain in Chateau Villandry gardens.jpg
A fountain in a French garden, as described in the song's lyrics
English "It Happened in May",[1][2][3] "It Was in May",[4] "In Early May",[5] "Once in the Month of May"[6]
Key F major
Period Medieval
Genre Pastourelle
Style Trouvère
Form Chanson
Text The full text of Ce fut en mai at Wikisource
Language Old French (langue d'oïl)
Composed 1235

"Ce fut en mai", or "Ce fu en mai",[6] is a French trouvère song, written in the 13th century by Moniot d'Arras. Its lyrics, in Old French, describe how a man sees a knight and a maiden cavorting in a garden. He follows them, and tells them of his unrequited love; they comfort him, and he cries and commends them to God. The song is a pastourelle and chanson, and was originally accompanied by dancing and medieval instruments like the vielle. "Ce fut en mai" has recently been recorded by early music performers such as Paul Hillier and the New Orleans Musica da Camera.


The Abbey of St. Vaast

The song was composed in 1235 by Moniot d'Arras (fl. 1213–1239), a monk at the Abbey of St. Vaast and one of the last trouvère musicians[5]—these were poets from northern and central France who wrote in the langue d'oïl and worked in royal courts.[7] Moniot himself was later patronised by Érard II, Count of Brienne. He also wrote religious poems honouring the Virgin Mary,[8] but "Ce fut en mai" is his most famous work.[9]


A love song, "Ce fut en mai" describes an unhappy lover who is comforted by religious feeling.[5] It is a pastourelle, meaning it concerns the romance of a shepherdess.[10] The song's narrative is written from the perspective of a man who, while playing beside a fountain on a morning in May, hears the sound of a fiddle. He sees a knight and a maiden dancing and embracing, and they leave to engage in sexual intercourse. The narrator hides and follows them, lamenting about how he has no such love. The knight notices him, and asks him what he wants; the narrator tells them of his unrequited love for a woman, to whom he is still faithful. The couple kindly console him, and tell him how they pray he will be happy. He thanks them sincerely, and commends them to God while crying.

The song's first verse
Original Old French[11] English translation[4]

Ce fut en mai
Au douz tens gai
Que la saisons est bele,
Main me levai,
Joer m'alai
Lez une fontenele.
En un vergier
Clos d'aiglentier
Oi une viele;
La vi dancier
Un chevalier
Et une damoisele.

It happened in May, when skies are gay
And green the plains and mountains,
At break of day I rose to play
Beside a little fountain.

In the garden close where shone the rose
I heard a fiddle played, then
A handsome knight that charmed my sight,
Was dancing with a maiden.

Musical structure[edit]

"Ce fut en mai" is a chanson[2][5]—a lyric-driven French song. Its texture is homophonic, as it consists of a single melody with an improvised accompaniment. The accompaniment was played on medieval instruments such as the psaltery, the dulcimer and the vielle.[5] It is divided into five stanzas of 12 lines each,[12] separated by short instrumental interludes. Its musical form is "AABB", and each stanza has an "AAB AAB CCD CCD" rhyme scheme. The music is cheerful, and does not reflect the sadness in the lyrics.[5] In his book Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, music historian Richard Taruskin called it "a consummate imitation folk song", and added: "There is little left here of the Latinate."[3]

\new Staff {
\relative c' {
  \key f \major
  \time 3/4
  \partial 4
  g( a) bes
  c2 f4
  e( d) e
  c2 c4
  bes( a) g
  a( bes) c
  a2 f4 \break
  g( a) bes
  c2 f4
  e( d) e
  c2 c4
  bes( a) g
  a( g) e
  f2 a4 \break
  c( bes) a
  g2 a4
  bes( a) g
  f2 g4
  a( g) f
  e2 f4
  g2 a4 \break
  c( bes) a
  g2 a4
  bes( a) g
  f2 g4
  a2 g4
  a( g) e
  f2 \bar "|."
} }

\addlyrics { 
\lyricmode {
  Ce fut __ en mai
  Au douz __ tens gai
  Que la __ sai -- sons __ est be -- le,
  Main me __ le -- vai,
  Jo -- er __ m'a -- lai
  Lez u -- ne fon -- te -- ne -- le.
  En un __ ver -- gier
  Clos d'ai -- glen -- tier
  O -- i __ u -- ne vi -- e -- le;
  La vi __ dan -- cier
  Un che -- va -- lier
  Et u -- ne da -- moi -- se -- le.
} }

  \midi {
    \context {
      tempoWholesPerMinute = #(ly:make-moment 360 8)


As a pastorelle, "Ce fut en mai" was originally accompanied by dancing and the music of a fiddle (vielle), as described in its lyrics.[3] In recent years, the song has been recorded by many early music performers, including St George’s Canzona, on their 1983 album Merry It is While Summer Lasts,[13] the Folger Consort on A Medieval Tapestry: Instrumental and Vocal Music From the 12th Through 14th Centuries in 1990,[14] and Paul Hillier on 2001's French Troubadour Songs.[15] New Orleans Musica da Camera also released it in 2003 as part of The Songs of Arras, an album featuring the songs of Moniot d'Arras and Adam de la Halle.[16]

The tune serves as the leitmotif of Saint Francis of Assisi in the ballet music Nobilissima Visione, written in 1937 by the German composer Paul Hindemith in collaboration with the Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine. In the various scenes of the ballet the tune undergoes modifications reflecting the protagonist's changing attitude to what matters in life.[17]


  1. ^ Hunter, Mark. "Medieval – Concert Hall". Humanities Resource. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Medieval Chanson and Moniot d'Arras". Music History is Thrilling!. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Taruskin, Richard (2010). Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 120–121. ISBN 0195384814. 
  4. ^ a b "Ce Fut en Mai (It was in May)". Cantaria Folk Song Archive. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Mulder, Geoffrey. "Ce fut en mai (In Early May)". Music History and Literature I. California State University. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  6. ^ a b "Arras: Ce fu en mai (Once in the month of May)". Presto Classical. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 
  7. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Trouvère". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 27 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 312–313. 
  8. ^ Bacro, Pascal. "Moniot d'Arras". L'Encyclopédie Médiévale (in French). Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  9. ^ Estrella, Espie. "Profile of Moniot d'Arras". Music Education. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  10. ^ Wright, C. H. C. (1969). A History of French Literature. New York: Haskell House Publishers. p. 43. ISBN 0838302637. 
  11. ^ "Ce fut en mai (traditional French)". Cantaria Folk Song Archive. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  12. ^ Mulder, Geoffrey. "Ce fut en mai – Introduction". Fundamentals of Music. California State University, Stanislaus. Archived from the original on 8 June 2010. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  13. ^ "Merry It Is While Summer Lasts – John Sothcott & St. George's Canzona". iTunes Store. Apple. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 
  14. ^ "A Medieval Tapestry: Instrumental and Vocal Music from the 12th Through 14th Centuries – The Folger Consort". iTunes Store. Apple. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 
  15. ^ "French Troubadour Songs". Amazon.com. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 
  16. ^ "Vocal Music (Medieval) – Bodel, J. – Bretel, J. – Adam De La Halle – Moniot D'Arras (The Songs of Arras) (New Orleans Musica Da Camera)". iTunes Store. Apple. Retrieved 24 September 2013. 
  17. ^ Siglind Bruhn, Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 2000, chapter "The Faun and the Virgin, the Saint and the Reaper: Multi-tiered Transmedializations," particularly pp. 435-468.