Sumer is Icumen in (Summer Is A Coming In) – traditional
sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu
bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew
“summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’
Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..“
Old old song. It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978. Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.
But the key text is this one : the Middle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.
The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words. Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious. The tune remains the same. This double version was not unusual in those days. A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune. Which came first ? We shall probably never know.
I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986. I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman) in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year. I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king. It was a fateful move. Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.
After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009. And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon. No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality. She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her. Loudly. It was murder. When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“. I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend. I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production. I was hating everything. He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.
Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night. Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow. It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast. Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch. The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.
Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me. Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing. Until I came to the front. “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said. I carried on improving. My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK. And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare. It just all should have been better. My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me. That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile. At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“. But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.
Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu
The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf
The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape. His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters. And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.
It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude – Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language. In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“. Apparently :
Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu
Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !
Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside. We sang it as a round every morning. This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time. Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red. Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.
I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations. The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis. I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally. A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax. It’s a powerful cinematic moment.
I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old. It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English). It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.
The Hilliard Ensemble :
Richard Thompson :
The Wicker Man :