Listening to the Bittersweet Songs of Summer
Sumer is icumen in.
Lhude sing cuckoo!
Summer has come in—or so the “Cuckoo Song,” also known as the “Summer Canon,” tells me. The piece, which dates to the 13th century, is the oldest known musical composition to feature six-part polyphony. In other words, it was composed as a round that could feature up to six different voices or groups simultaneously singing different phrases and melodies.
Thanks to the miracle of digitization, you no longer have to travel to The British Library to see the manuscript for “The Cuckoo Song.” Instead, you can find it online—and it is aesthetically quite beautiful, with its decorative initials and colorful musical staves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the manuscript’s Middle English lyrics speak about the seasonal riches of summer. They praise growing seeds, blooming meadows, and a wood that is coming into leaf. They tell of ewes bleating for their lambs and cows lowing after their calves.
But females aren’t the only creatures livening up the landscape. In the song, a bull prances, while another male animal—most likely a billy-goat or a stag—is either cavorting or passing wind. (Yes, you read that correctly. “The Cuckoo Song” may contain one of the earliest recorded instances of a version of the word “fart.” Who ever said that philology isn’t interesting?)
Above it all, surveying the blooming and bleating from on high, the cuckoo sings.
“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a happy, joyful piece. No wonder it was sung at the opening of the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. No wonder it proves a perennial crowd pleaser for madrigal groups the world over.
That said, the lyrics may not please everyone. If you’re a serious type who breaks into hives at the thought of all those earthy, frolicking animals, you may be relieved to know that the melody for “Sumer Is Icumen In” also has been paired with other lyrics. And those happen to be about the death of Jesus.
Take another look at the manuscript for “Sumer Is Icumen In.” (Part of it serves as this blog post’s cover image.) Under each staff, you’ll see two sets of words. The top lines, in black ink, contain Middle English recollections of cows and meadows and woods. The bottom lines, in red ink, are written in Latin; they represent alternative lyrics. Beginning with the two words that lend the second song its informal title—“perspice Christicola”—the Latin lyrics encourage listeners to reflect upon Jesus’ sacrifice. They recount how God the “heavenly farmer” (apparently it was not necessary to remove all references to the pastoral) did not spare his Son from death, and thereby gave rise to new life.
And there you have it: one melody with two songs that could not be more different in tenor and meaning. On the pages of the manuscript, lyrics of unadulterated celebration physically butt up against lyrics of bittersweet loss and renewal. It’s the perfect musical metaphor for life.
With its dual (and dueling) lyrical narratives, the melody of “Sumer is Icumen In” perfectly matches the season of contrasts that recently has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. Summer certainly brings sun and light that enliven us. But it also possesses the power to usher in wilting heat that sucks the vitality right out of us … sometimes literally. Personally, I’ll never forget the summer of 1995, when Chicago experienced a heat wave that killed 739 people. Most of the individuals who died were poor and/or elderly. Heat is by no means an equal-opportunity killer.
These days, as our political leaders consider healthcare legislation that will cut Medicaid spending by 35 percent and, in the words of Maine Senator Susan Collins, “cause a lot of harm,” we need to take action on behalf of the vulnerable among us. Even as we enjoy beaches, hiking trails, and reunions with families and friends, we must remember those who lack access to cooling breezes, beautiful forests, and life-sustaining love.
Sumer is icumen in.
As the animals call for their young, and the universe harvests seeds of life in the midst of death, we are called to respond to a divine mandate: Care for the earth and help one another.
Editor’s Note: With this post, Bearings enters its summer hiatus. In order to afford our writers and editors time for rest and renewal, we publish less frequently in July and August. After producing several special editions over the course of the next two months, we will kick off the fourth regular season of Bearings in September. Between now and then, we invite you to review the publication’s award-winning series—together with their accompanying study materials, which are designed to guide individual reflection and/or community conversation.