Sumer Is Icumen In

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"Sumer Is Icumen In"
Length indeterminate
Writer Unknown;
speculated to be W. de Wycombe
Composer Unknown;
speculated to be W. de Wycombe
Language Wessex dialect of Middle English

"Sumer Is Icumen In" (also called the Summer Canon and the Cuckoo Song) is a medieval English 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]), and is possibly the oldest surviving example of independent melodic counterpoint.[citation 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).


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.

"Sumer Is Icumen In" in modern notation:

File:Sumer is icumen in.png
The song in modern staff notation

Lyrics translations

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 an 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).

Middle English

Svmer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ

murie sing cuccu
Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu

Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu • Sing cuccu nu (Millett 2003b)

Modern English

Spring has arrived, (Crystal 2004, 108)
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting,

Sing merrily, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing well, cuckoo,
Never stop now.

Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;
Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now! (Millett 2003b)

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).

Christian version in Latin

A later version of the song with Latin lyrics reflects on the sacrifice of the Crucifixion of Jesus:


Perspice Christicola
que dignacio
Celicus agricola
pro vitis vicio
Filio non parcens
exposuit mortis exicio
Qui captivos semiuiuos a supplicio
Vite donat et secum coronat
in celi solio

written "χρ̅icola" in the manuscript (see Christogram).

Modern English

Observe, Christian,
such honour!
The heavenly farmer,
owing to a defect in the vine,
not sparing the Son,
exposed him to the destruction of death.
To the captives half-dead from torment,
He gives them life and crowns them with himself
on the throne of heaven.

Renditions and recordings

A boys' choir sings the rota at the climax of Benjamin Britten's Spring Symphony (Opus 44 first performed 1949).

The opening ceremony of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich included a performance of this rota. Children danced to the music around the track of the stadium.

The song can be heard sung by a children's choir in the "Kingmaker" exhibition at Warwick Castle.

Studio albums

Cardiacs side project Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake recorded an arrangement of the song on their self-titled album in 1984.

Richard Thompson's own arrangement is the earliest song on his album 1000 Years of Popular Music (2003 Beeswing Records).

Emilia Dalby and the Sarum Voices covered the song for the album Emilia (2009 Signum Classics).

Post-punk band The Futureheads perform the song a cappella for their album Rant (2012 Nul Records).

The song is also used as the introduction to the neofolk band, Sol Invictus's, song "Kneel to the Cross" on their albums, Lex Talonis and Death of the West. This song was later covered by the Portland, Oregon-based black metal band, Agalloch's album, Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor.

Film and television

The song is heard and mentioned in Episode 2 of Melvyn Bragg's 2003 documentary The Adventure of English as being part of how the English language survived among the peasants of Medieval England between 1066 and 1340, when the Norman French ruled the country.

In the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) whistles the melody just before he meets Robin Hood. The song is also played in several episodes of the 1950's television show also named The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sometimes the song features prominently in the episode: for example, in the episode Carlotta, Little John (Archie Duncan) sings it to his beloved, and in The Betrothal, Sir Richard of the Lea's son plays it on the flute and his betrothed sings it. Other times it is heard in the background while nobles are having party or even sung while the merry men are doing chores.

The rendition sung in the climax of the 1973 British film The Wicker Man is a mixed translation by Anthony Shaffer:

Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
Sing, cuckoo!
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb,
Cows after calves make moo;
Bullock stamps and deer champs,
Now shrilly sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo
Wild bird are you;
Be never still, cuckoo!

In the 1974 British children's television series Bagpuss, a mischief of mice sing a high-pitched pastiche of the song with alternative lyrics.

In the American animated film The Flight of Dragons (1982), Sir Orrin Neville-Smythe (Bob McFadden) sings the song to drown out the insanity-inducing chattering of the ratlike creatures called "sandmirks". It was also recited in Woody Allen's 1982 film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy by the character Leopold (José Ferrer).

Glenn Close, in the role of Sarah Wheaton, sings the song In the 1991 American television film Sarah, Plain and Tall.

In the 1993 English film Shadowlands, the story of the romance between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, a choir of men and boys sing the rota to greet the dawn sun on May Day. The film's soundtrack album (1994 Angel Records) features a recording of a choir from Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Christian version (Perspice Christicola) appears in the ITV television series Cadfael, also appearing on the series' soundtrack (Anon. 2014).


This piece was parodied as "Ancient Music" by the American poet Ezra Pound (Lustra, 1913–1915):

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
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 as "Summer is a cumin seed" for the penultimate movement of his Grand Oratorio The Seasonings.

Mark Alburger's Mary Variations includes a movement titled "Mary Is Icumen In", which sets Lowell Mason's "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to the melody.

Vernon Duke gently parodied and paid homage to the round with his song "Summer is A-Comin' In," with the verse making reference to "a troubadour / Way back in 1226." Each refrain of the song begins with the phrase "Summer is icumen in / Lhude sing cucu." The song has been recorded by Charlotte Rae (twice) and Nat King Cole, among others.

The song is also referenced in "Carpe Diem," by The Fugs on their 1965 debut album, The Fugs First Album.

Carpe diem,
Sing, cuckoo sing,
Death is a-comin in,
Sing, cuckoo sing.
death is a-comin in.

See also


Further reading

  • Bukofzer, Manfred F. (1944) "'Sumer is icumen in': A Revision". University of California Publications in Music 2: 79–114.
  • Colton, Lisa (2014). "Sumer Is Icumen In". Grove Music Online (1 July, revision) (accessed 26 November 2014)
  • Duffin, Ross W. (1988) "The Sumer Canon: A New Revision". Speculum 63:1–21.
  • Falck, Robert. (1972). "Rondellus, Canon, and Related Types before 1300". Journal of the American Musicological Society 25, no. 1 (Spring): 38-57.
  • 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. ISBN 3-11-014127-2.
  • Greentree, Rosemary (2001). The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem. Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature 7. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-621-9.
  • Sanders, Ernest H. (2001). "Sumer Is Icumen In". Grove Music Online (20 January, bibliography updated 28 August 2002) (accessed 26 November 2014).
  • 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.

External links