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Sumer is icumen in

Image of the music score from Sumer is icumen in

'Sumer is icumen in'
British Library Harley MS 978, f.11v
Copyright © The British Library Board
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'Sumer is icumen in' is one of the best-known of English medieval songs, although it was probably unknown between the 14th and the 19th centuries.

'Sumer is icumen in' is a composition for several voices, probably written at Reading Abbey in the mid-13th century. This piece is one of the most celebrated of all medieval musical compositions. Its form is that of an infinite canon at the unison for a possible four voices, accompanied by two lower voices who sing a short phrase in interchange.

The melody is one of the oldest known examples of what is now known as the major mode and the oldest example of ground-bass. Its effect is fresh and dance-like. Besides the English secular words, 'Sumer is icumen in', the canon (though not the bass) is also provided with a sacred Latin text, 'Perspice Christicola'. The manuscript is in fact the earliest known in which both secular and sacred words are written to the same piece of music. Although not as exceptional as was once thought, this composition remains far more ambitious than contemporary French or Italian canons.

'Sumer is icumen in' is known only from this manuscript. The text inset to the right of the pages gives instructions in Latin for its performance as a round. The cross above the first line marks the point at which each of the four main voices enters. The parts for the lower voices, or the 'pes', are written on the bottom two lines.

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