Saturday, December 21, 2013

Prairieland Strings -- "Sumer Is Icumen In," so let's start getting ready ** UPDATED ** w/ sheet music per original ms. in standard notation

You've got to trust me on this one -- I didn't plan it that I'd start looking for video clips of "Sumer Is Icumin In" on the same day as the winter solstice. Yeah, yeah, it's the day when the seasons change and the six-month progression back to summer begins anew. So it fits. But it just worked out that way.

At our next session of the Prairieland Strings dulcimer (and other instruments!) club, on Tuesday, Jan. 7, we hope to have sheet music, in parts, for "Sumer Is Icumin In" (summer is a-coming in), and I think we can have a lot of fun with it.

"Sumer Is Icumin In" is known to us from a manuscript in the Harleian collection in the British Library (picture at left Creative Commons). It has been dated to 1260 and it's been aptly described as the oldest popular hit in the English repertory. When British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson included it in his 1,000 Years of Popular Music" concerts, Sacramento's alternative News & Review suggested the "13th-century ballad" was "perhaps a monkish pop hit in its day." But back in the UK, the Guardian flatly proclaimed it was a "13th-century smash hit." It's been covered over the years in a wide variety of settings, including the elaborately choreographed opening ceremonies at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

As it's usually performed by classical musicians and early music consorts, "Sumer Is Icumin In" is a complicated piece of a cappella choral music -- with a round, or canon, sung over a refrain called a "pes" (from a medieval dog-Latin word for the foot) that sounds a lot like a two-note drone. Wikipedia describes it asa "six-voice round (four in melody, two in 'pes')." [See definitions #1 and #2 in footnotes below.] But it lends itself to a wide variety of other arrangements and interpretations. Richard Thompson, for example, performs it as a duet accompanied by his guitar and an insistent snare drum. And it's a perfect tune for mountain dulcimer, especially played on one string with the drones ringing free.

Video clips are linked below, including the dulcimer solo. Look them over and see if there are some ideas you'd like to see us copy for the Prairieland Strings.

Of all the versions on Youtube, I think the one that comes closest to capturing a little bit of the improvisatory spirit of secular medieval music is a performance by the Argentinian early music group Laudate Dominus for a medieval literature class in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires.

I coloquio joven Literatura Europea Medieval de la UBA. Desafíos. Uploaded Nov. 22, 2013 by Laudate Dominus. "Invitadas por la cátedra de Literatura Europea Medieval, fuimos a tocar un sábado ¡a las 10.30hs de la mañana! No sólo tuvimos un muy buen público, si no que además era muy afinado. Ésta es la muestra." [Invited by the Chair of Medieval European literature, we were playing a Saturday at 10.30am in the morning! Not only had a very good audience, but it also was very refined. This is the sample. Trans. by Google.]

Another coincidence: Just this week -- Wednesday, Dec. 18, to be exact -- Laudate Dominus announced on its Facebook page at, "You can now order our first album on CD on It´s not the same edition that the one we have here in Buenos Aires, but one made by Amazon. It´s a great Christmas present!!!!"

Here's another approach. Of particular interest, perhaps, to our mountain dulcimer players.

Sumer Is Icumen In - Solo Mountain Dulcimer. YouTube user Jim Edwards, July 2013. "DAd tuning - drone/melody style." It was posted also to the Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer website.

Richard Thompson in concert … he used it to open his 1000 Years … act

Published on Oct 4, 2012 26.05.2012, Moscow International House of Music. Ensemble Pfeyffer (old German word for piper), early music consort

Published on Jul 26, 2012 Nashville, Tenn. Sumer is icumin in, anonymous English canon c. 1260 performed by the Nashville School of Arts Early Music Consort, Walter Bitner, director. May 1, 2012, The Polk Theater, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville, Tennessee.


Footnotes (but only for those of us who like footnotes).

[1] Wikipedia at describes it like this: "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."

[2] The ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies - Medieval Music Glossary has definitions for pes, canon, cans and other terms at Another term we should know as dulcimer players is drone, which it defines as "an unchanging pitch that is held beneath a melody and so serves as an aural reference point. Drones are added by modern-day performers to some pieces (e.g. to Hildegard's music or to troubadour-trouvère repertory). Medieval notation never indicates where a drone should be used or what pitch it should hold, so performers must use their good judgement." Lots of drones in "Sumer Is Icumin In" and lots of drones on a mountain dulcimer played right.

UPDATE Feb. 21, 2014. Email I sent today after Prairieland club finally met after being snowed out since December:

Hi Judy --

We're going to have a lot of fun with "Sumer Is Icumen In" when we finally get together!

Debi and I were the only ones at last night's session, so she was banging it out on the piano and I was on lap dulcimer while we went back and forth from the melody to rhythm parts on your tab. Once we got the hang of the "pes" or bass part, it was like having a metronome!

BTW, I found a PDF file that approximates the original but in standard notation (in F). You may have already seen it, but here's the URL ...

And here's a link to the public domain directory where I found it ...

It's the first item in the directory -- by Christopher Upton and it's available under a Creative Commons license (click on the little PDF logo). I found it last night after the session, when I was looking for something with the lyrics -- since I play by ear, it's easier for me to learn a new tune if I sing it before I try playing it. I'm of a generation that still had to memorize the prologue to "Canterbury Tales," so I found the words pretty easy to pronounce.

-- Pete

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