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Sumer is icumen in: a Modern English Translation

"Sumer is icumen in" (also known as 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". The song was apparently composed in the Wessex dialect of Middle English and came complete with a musical score and instructions for the singing of rounds, in Latin. Many scholars believe the "Cuckoo Song," one of the earliest English lyrics of the coming of spring, was probably composed between 1240 and 1310, although some think it may date back earlier, to the 12th century. It was written down in a commonplace book kept over a number of years by the monks of Reading Abbey. 

Sumer is icumen in

anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1260 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Summer has returned!
Sing loud, cuckoo!
The seed grows,
The meadow blows,
And the woods spring up anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after her lamb;
The cow lows a motherly coo;
The bullock roots,
The billy-goat poots ...
Sing merrily, cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing well, cuckoo!
Never stop, until you're through!

Sing now cuckoo! Sing, cuckoo!
Sing, cuckoo! Sing now cuckoo!

NOTES: These notes were taken from the poem's Wikipedia page ...

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. This rota is the oldest known musical composition featuring six-part polyphony. 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:

"Hanc rota cantare possum 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 pausacionis 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 lyrics and/or music may have been composed by W. de Wycombe, also identified as W de Wyc, Willelmus de Winchecumbe, Willelmo de Winchecumbe or William of Winchcomb. He appears to have been a secular scribe and precentor employed for about four years at the priory of Leominster in Herefordshire during the 1270s. He is also thought to have been a sub-deacon of the cathedral priory as listed in the Worcester Annals or possibly a monk at St Andrew's in Worcester. But it is not know if he composed the song, or merely preserved it by copying it.


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