A rota is a type of round, which in turn is a kind of partsong. To perform the round, one singer begins the song, and a second starts singing the beginning again just as the first got to the point marked with the red cross in the first figure below. The length between the start and the cross corresponds to the modern notion of a bar, and the main verse comprises six phrases spread over twelve such bars. In addition, there are two lines marked "Pes", two bars each, that are meant to be sung together repeatedly underneath the main verse. These instructions are included (in Latin) in the manuscript itself:
"Hanc rotam cantare possunt quatuor socii. A paucio/ribus autem quam a tribus uel saltem duobus non debet/ dici preter eos qui dicunt pedem. Canitur autem sic. Tacen/tibus ceteris unus inchoat cum hiis qui tenent pedem. Et cum uenerit/ ad primam notam post crucem, inchoat alius, et sic de ceteris./ Singuli de uero repausent ad pausaciones scriptas et/non alibi, spacio unius longe note."
(Four companions can sing this round. But it should not be sung by fewer than three, or at the very least, two in addition to those who sing the pes. This is how it is sung. While all the others are silent, one person begins at the same time as those who sing the ground. And when he comes to the first note after the cross [which marks the end of the first two bars], another singer is to begin, and thus for the others. Each shall observe the written rests for the space of one long note [triplet], but not elsewhere.)
The celebration of summer in "Sumer Is Icumen In" is similar to that of spring in the French poetic genre known as the reverdie (lit. "re-greening"). However, there are grounds for doubting such a straightforward and naïve interpretation. The language used lacks all of the conventional springtime-renewal words of a reverdie (such as "green", "new", "begin", or "wax") except for springþ, and elements of the text, especially the cuckoo and the farmyard noises, are susceptible of double meanings. "It is the wrong bird, the wrong season, and the wrong language for a reverdie, unless an ironic meaning is intended" (Roscow 1999, 188, 190, 193).
The translation of "bucke uerteþ" is uncertain. Some translate the former word as "buck-goat" and the latter as "turns" or "cavorts," but the current critical consensus is that the line is the stag or goat "farts" (Millett 2003c; Wulstan 2000, 8).
A second recording, made by the Winchester Music Club, followed in 1929. Released on Columbia (England) D40119 (matrix number WAX4245-2), this twelve-inch 78rpm record was made to illustrate the second in a series of five lectures by Sir George Dyson, for the International Educational Society, and is titled Lecture 61. The Progress Of Music. No. 1 Rota (Canon): Summer Is A Coming In (Part 4) (Leslie 1942; Siese n.d.).
For similar purposes, E. H. Fellowes conducted the St. George's Singers in a recording issued ca. 1930 on Columbia (US) 5715, a ten-inch 78rpm disc, part of the eight-disc album M-221, the Columbia History of Music by Ear and Eye, Volume One, Period 1: To the Opening of the Seventeenth Century (Leslie 1942; Hall 1948, 578).
The London Madrigal Group, conducted by T.B. Lawrence, recorded the work on 10 January 1936. This recording was issued later that year on Victrola 4316 (matrix numbers OEA2911 and OEA2913), a ten-inch 78rpm disc (Hall 1948, 578).
In the 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) is whistling the melody of the song just before he first meets Robin Hood played by Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938, 20:37–20:44). According to Lisa Colton, "Although it appears only this once, in that fleeting moment the tune serves to introduce the character through performance: the melody was presumably sufficiently recognisable to be representative of medieval English music, but perhaps, more importantly, the fact that Little John is whistling the song emphasizes his peasant status...In Robin Hood, Little John's performance of 'Sumer is icumen in' locates him socially as a contented, lower class male, a symbol of the romanticized ideal of the medieval peasant" (Colton 2017, 31).
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb,
Cows after calves make moo;
Bullock stamps and deer champs,
Now shrilly sing, cuckoo!
Wild bird are you;
Be never still, cuckoo!
This piece was parodied as "Ancient Music" by the American poet Ezra Pound (Lustra, 1916):
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
The song is also parodied by "P. D. Q. Bach" (Peter Schickele) as "Summer is a cumin seed" for the penultimate movement of his Grand Oratorio The Seasonings.
The song is also referenced in "Carpe Diem," by The Fugs on their 1965 debut album, The Fugs First Album.
Sing, cuckoo sing,
Death is a-comin in,
Sing, cuckoo sing.
death is a-comin in.
^While Middle English sumer is related to Modern English "summer", Crystal (2004, 108) states it means "spring". Millett notes that the Middle English word "sumer" "extends over a longer period than the modern one" Millett (2003c).
^"1000 Years of Popular Music kicks off with 'Summer Is Icumen In', which is the original summer anthem and could be heard blasting from many a tavern and castle during the balmy middle months of 1260."
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Colton, Lisa (2017). Angel song: Medieval English music in history. London:Routlege. ISBN978-1-472-42568-3.
Duffin, Ross W. (1988) "The Sumer Canon: A New Revision". Speculum 63:1–21.
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Fischer, Andreas (1994). "'Sumer is icumen in': The Seasons of the Year in Middle English and Early Modern English". In Studies in Early Modern English, edited by Dieter Kastovsky, 79–95. Berlin and New York: Mouton De Gruyter. ISBN3-11-014127-2.
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Schofield, B. (1948). "The Provenance and Date of 'Sumer is icumen in'". The Music Review 9:81–86.
Taylor, Andrew, and A. E. Coates (1998). "The Dates of the Reading Calendar and the Summer Canon". Notes and Queries 243:22–24.
Toguchi, Kōsaku. (1978). "'Sumer is icumen in' et la caccia: Autour du problème des relations entre le 'Summer canon' et la caccia arsnovistique du trecento". In La musica al tempo del Boccaccio e i suoi rapporti con la letteratura, edited by Agostino Ziino, 435–46. L'ars nova italiana del Trecento 4. Certaldo: Centro di Studi sull'Ars Nova Italiana del Trecento.