Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sumer is icumen in! Say what?


Source: London, British Library, MS Harley 978, f. 11v

Is this the oldest surviving form of written polyphony? MS Harley 978 is renowned for its comical insert "Sumer is icumen in" (Summer is coming) dating from the mid thirteenth-century, originating in Reading Abbey. The manuscript, however, was most likely to have been copied in Oxford before it found its way to Reading, perhaps by a certain William of Winchester? Today, the musical item in MS Harley 978 is best known for its naughty explication of nature's somatic, indifferent delights:

Sumer 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
.

Pes:
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
cuckoo;
Don't you ever stop now,

Pes:
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
Few actually remember that the "music itself" is a plural diacritical force yanked between two seemingly polar loci; the added red lyrics beneath the secular call to nature is, indeed, a completely religious account of God's sacrifice of Jesus for the holy redemption of mankind:

Perspice Christicola
que dignacio
Celicus agricola
pro uitis vicio
Filio
non parcens exposuit mortis exicio
Qui captiuos semiuiuos a supplicio
Vite donat et secum coronat

in celi solio
Observe, Christian,
such honour!
The heavenly farmer,
due 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.
What, then is sumer is icumen in? A neat sort of medieval pointe de capiton which knits two seemingly un-incorporatable texts together at musical "points" - the piece is contrapuntal in an extramusical sense, the two texts "touch" each other at musically prominent positions, to quite ludicrous effect. My favorite part occurs in the movement from the third stave to the fourth stave:


The wonderful explosive moment to the musical item - a worked ascent through A to high F, figures in a bullock stirring and the stag farting in this (musical and animistic) climax of this miniature tour around the farm of sumer is icumen in. The precise peak coincides with the ridiculous cuckoo call: "Sing cucco!" promptly echoed by the Pes repetitive parts, as unchanging as the actual irrational cuckoos who, for want of reason, are imprisoned by their own perpetual canon of mimetic birdsong. From the beastly dimensions of mock fin' amours, the corresponding juxtapositional text figures God as the "heavenly farmer" tending to his symbol-ridden bestiary. In an interpolative gesture, the text is precisely "layered," brought into corporeal proximity with its beastly other by the process of musical knitting. Religion, it seems "overwrites" the previous (proximal) secular lyric as the scribe "overwrites" (writes-over) the scraped, dried animal body (parchment) with meaningful symbols for reading. The music which is not one: always doubled by its own text-ure, but never fully reducible to the signifier either...

Corresponding to the (secular) lyric's conflation of the oral/anal drives (stag farting, the singer reaching a climatic high-f shriek), the sacred lyrics "supplies with captives half-dead with torment," a truly intriguing pairing of disconnect themes. Most interestingly, the climax of the sacred lyric - Vite (life) - is conspicuously disjointed from the musical phrase, only to be completed at the start of the next phrase after the brief rest. What is going on here? In the place of "vite," "supplicio" conforms to the high point, as does the inverted fart-breath of the stag sublimated into a joyous/ambiguous celebration/rejection/abjection of nature's machinic, hermetic writing and re-writing of its contradictory drives. The point of the verse, it seems, circulates around the mimesis of birdly (re)call, and the proper faculty of ars memoria: surely, by hammering in the cyclical (some say irritating) tapping of music, Christ's own torturous sacrifice is torturously hammered into the skull of the participant/listener, even musically displacing the actual receipts of Christ's sacrifice to the musical afterthought preceding the song's climax.

The registral shift from the (sung) bestiary to the ejaculatory wantonness of "cuccu!" frames Christian supplication to free the captive. Who is captive here? After a couple of rounds, inasmuch as music heightens the memoria of text, over-audibility could cause aural fatigue; the paradox, is that the climatic equivocal "cuccu!" flirts with an equally ambiguous "suplicio," perhaps the "suplicio" to rid oneself of the melody, to literally kill the music, to end a life by cutting short one's breath (which now stinks of flatulent music). Yet, the breath ironically supports the sustained (tone/)thought of Christ: the ridiculous conundrum of the cantor is therefore to sustain repetitiveness through perseverance: hopefully his singerly death (loss of voice) which becomes symptomatic of his devotion (his reduction to beastly ineloquence) transcends his corporeal (natural) enslavement: his flatulent "pneuma" turns into a blessed offering for the memorialization of Christ's sacrifice.

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