Sumer Is Icumen In

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"Sumer Is Icumen In"
Round
Language Wessex dialect of Middle English
Length indeterminate
Composer(s) Unknown;
speculated to be W. de Wycombe
Lyricist(s) Unknown;
speculated to be W. de Wycombe

"Sumer Is Icumen In" (also called the Summer Canon and the Cuckoo Song) is a medieval English round or rota of the mid-13th century.

The title translates approximately to "Summer Has Come In" or "Summer Has Arrived" (Roscow 1999,[page needed]). The song is composed in the Wessex dialect of Middle English. Although the composer's identity is unknown today, it may have been W. de Wycombe. The manuscript in which it is preserved was copied between 1261 and 1264 (Wulstan 2000, 8).

This rota is the oldest known musical composition featuring six-part polyphony (Albright 1994,[page needed]).

It is sometimes called the Reading Rota because the earliest known copy of the composition, a manuscript written in mensural notation, was found at Reading Abbey; it was probably not drafted there, however (Millett 2004). The British Library now retains this manuscript (Millett 2003a).

Rota[edit]

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 rota 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.)

First line of the manuscript.

"Sumer Is Icumen In" in modern notation:

The song in modern staff notation

Translations[edit]

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).