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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland

Music in the British Isles Through the Early Fifteenth Century and its Influence on the Continent

CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Ever since the late eighteenth century, when the first modern histories of music were written, the most famous piece of “ancient music” in the Western world (apart from chants in daily use) has been the little composition reproduced in its entirety in Fig. 11-1, a piece still known to many who have otherwise never run into any early music at all.

It is found in a manuscript that was probably compiled at the Benedictine abbey of Reading, a town in south central England some fifty miles west of London, around the middle of the thirteenth century. About three hundred years later the monastery was dissolved in the turbulent course of the English reformation. The manuscript eventually passed into the collection of Robert Harley (1661–1724), the first Earl of Oxford, sometime speaker of Parliament and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a celebrated bibliophile. After Harley’s death, his collection was acquired by the crown and joined the holdings of the British Museum, where the manuscript was catalogued (as “Harley 978”) and became accessible to scholars and historians of music—a profession (or rather, at the time, an avocation) that was then just coming into being.

Harley 978 is actually a random assortment of old parchment and paper relating to the Reading Abbey, probably bound together by Harley himself. The musical portion consists of only fourteen leaves out of 180, containing thirteen miscellaneous pieces and a solmization tutor. Most of the pieces are monophonic conductus settings, but there is also a three-voice conductus, a version of the same piece entered sine littera in “modal ligatures” so as to fix the rhythm, and three two-voice textless pieces, probably dances (estampes).

And there is the piece shown in Fig. 11-1. From the beginning, scholars examining the manuscript knew that it was something special. For one thing, it had two texts in two different languages. Besides the expected Latin versus—Perspice, christicola (“Observe, O Christians!”), a poem celebrating the Resurrection—there is a text in English, in the local Wessex dialect, entered above the Latin, right below the notes, which celebrates the arrival of summer: Sumer is icumen in/Lhude sing cuccu! In modernized English, it goes like this:

Summer has come! Loudly sing cuckoo! Seed is growing, the flowers are blowing in the field, the woods are newly green. The ewe bleats after her lamb, the cow lows after her calf. The bull starts, the buck runs into the brush. Merrily sing cuckoo! That’s it, keep it up!

Chapter 11 Island and Mainland

fig. 11-1 Sumer is icumen in (London, British Library, MS Harley 978).

And keep it up they do! But who are “they”? A long-winded rubric explains:

This rota [round] can be sung by four companions, but not by less than three (or at least two), in addition to the ones on the part marked pes [“foot” or “pacer,” or better yet, “ground”]. Sing it thus: While the rest remain silent, one begins together with the singers of the pes, and when he comes to the first note after the cross, another begins, and so on. Pause at the rests, but nowhere else, for the length of one long note.

So this piece is a round—a canon with a beginning but without a specified end—and it is to be sung over a repetitive phrase or ostinato (what pes means in this context) that is itself split like a round between two parts. (Or rather, since the two pedes are directed by their own rubrics to enter together rather than in sequence, they are sung in perpetual voice exchange: A against B, then B against A, and so on forever.) An accompanied round in as many as six separate parts! There is nothing comparable to such a conception in any other manuscript music of the period from any country, and no other six-part composition would be preserved in writing until the latter part of the fifteenth century, some two hundred years later.

The “Reading rota,” as it came to be known, grew instantly famous in 1776, when it appeared, both in diplomatic transcription (that is, a reproduction of the original notation) and as written out (or “realized”) in score, in A General History of the Science and Practice of Music by Sir John Hawkins. This was the first general survey of music in the Western literate tradition that (on the one hand) attempted to recount the whole chronological panoply and (on the other) was grounded rigorously in the empirical method—the inspection and analysis of documentary source material. Hawkins’s history, in other words, was the first endeavor in the line of which the present book is the latest.

It had an instant competitor in the four-volume General History of Music by Dr. Charles Burney, the first volume of which appeared in the same year as did Hawkins’s history. The second volume, published in 1782, contained a detailed discussion of the “Sumer canon” (as it is also commonly known) partly cribbed from Hawkins, which also included both a diplomatic transcription (only partial, Burney being a less laborious antiquarian than his rival) and a full realization in score (more accurate, Burney being also the better musician). Every subsequent history of music has done the same, and the present one, as you see, is no exception.

Having seen and discussed the original from a photographic facsimile (something for which Hawkins in particular would have given his eyeteeth), we will now proceed to the realization, in an ingenious space-saving version devised by the Irish musicologist Frank Llewellyn Harrison. The twelve phrases of the melody are all arranged over the double pes that accompanies the lot of them, with nine brackets showing the successive combinations of voices that occur when four “companions” sing the round as prescribed by the rubric (Ex. 11-1). Harrison, interestingly and uniquely, claimed that the Latin version of the canon was the original one, pointing out that the first five notes of the pes coincides with the incipit of Regina coeli, laetare, the Marian antiphon sung at Eastertide (compare Ex. 3-12a).1 Whether to regard the undeniable resemblance as design or happenstance is anyone’s guess.

Printed like this, as a twelve-part array, the Sumer canon looks very impressive indeed, and it is not difficult to see why it has been a celebrity of music history ever since there has been such a thing as music history. A certain nationalistic, promotional fervor has undoubtedly also played a part in the process of disseminating it. The canon has been a national monument in England since the days of Hawkins and Burney. It was printed as the frontispiece to the “S” volume in several editions of the big Grove Dictionary of Music, and even in the latest edition (the seventh, published in 2001) it has its own title entry, with a column and a half of text and a full-page photographic facsimile of the source. Every English school anthology (whether of songs or of poems) used to contain it, and every English child at school used to be able to sing it by heart. A book the present author was given as a child called it “the first masterpiece of music.” Needless to add, it spawned legions of parodies, the most famous being Ezra Pound’s “Winter is icumen in, lhude sing goddamn!” But just what has made it such a hit? Its “bigness,” if we allow ourselves a moment to reflect, is somewhat illusory. A lot of parts get going at once, to be sure, but they are organized according to a very simple pattern, the repetitive pes with its implied harmonic oscillation between the final (F) and its “supertonic” (G)—the very oscillation that has governed the tonal design of many genres that we have already encountered, including all that have “open/shut” cadences or endings.

Chapter 11 Island and Mainland

ex. 11-1 Sumer Canon, as realized by Frank Llewellyn Harrison

Chapter 11 Island and Mainland

ex. 11-2 Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols, opening of Wolcum yole!

In fact, that oscillation has in a very significant way become more literally harmonic, as we understand the term today, than any music we have hitherto encountered. Once the second voice has entered, full F major and G minor triads sound on practically every beat. And that evocative alternation has meant “olde England,” if not since the thirteenth century, at least since the time of Burney and Hawkins. Benjamin Britten (1913–76) was only the most conspicuous of many modern English composers when he appropriated it (tastefully embellished with a tonic pedal) to set the scene at the beginning of his popular Ceremony of Carols, a Christmas school-piece for children’s voices that he wrote in 1942. The “summer” progression, played on the harp, is actually the first harmony one hears, preceded only by a monophonic mock-Gregorian processional. (In Ex. 11-2 the music is transposed from A major to F major to aid comparison with Ex. 11-1.)

That basic harmonic—yes, chordal—to-and-fro so pervades the texture of the Sumer canon that anyone with half an “ear” (that is, the least bit acculturated into the idiom) could easily get into the swing of things and extend the piece “by ear” virtually ad libitum with additional simple counterpoints beyond the twelve written ones, the way kids at the piano do with “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” And in bringing up the possibility of “ad-libbing,” we are immediately reminded of Giraldus Cambrensis and his twelfth-century description of improvisational polyphony (and, just as in Britten’s imaginative “transcription,” harp playing as well) as practiced in his native Wales, quoted near the beginning of chapter 5.

Giraldus’s account was set down in 1198, about half a century before the Reading Rota was set down. So is the Reading Rota a uniquely complex and innovative musical composition, the product of an anonymous English composer’s prescient musical genius? Or was it a lucky (for us) written reflection of a widespread but otherwise unrecorded oral tradition—“acquired,” as Giraldus informs us, “not by art but by long usage which has made it, as it were, natural,” so that “children scarcely beyond infancy, when their wails have barely turned into songs could already take part”—possibly set down by a waggish monk who noticed the resemblance of a popular pes to the beginning of the Regina coeli chant, and fitted out a popular round with a Latin contrafactum that accorded with that chance resemblance?

If we assume the latter, then a great deal of what is otherwise strangely unique about early English music seems to fit into a historical pattern, and it turns out that that widespread oral tradition may not be quite so unrecorded as we might otherwise have thought. Once again the line between the oral and the literate—between “folk” and “artistic” practice, between “popular” and “aristocratic” culture, or define it as you will—turns out, fascinatingly and fruitfully, to be a blur.


(1) Frank L. Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (2nd ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 144.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-011.xml