Sumer Is Icumen In (Summer is Here)

March 20, 2017

By Walter Bittner

When I was an elementary and middle school music teacher (1991 – 2007), I structured a lot of my curriculum — especially the songs I chose to teach my students — around the seasons. While it may seem like an obvious educational strategy, I think it is important to stress the value of this. Children in our society are living in environments that are increasingly divorced from any sense of connection with the natural world. Part of a music teacher’s mission is to give children not only a developed set of skills but also a generous survey (content) of our musical tradition, and the music literature — especially the song repertoire — includes a wide variety of examples of the use of music to evoke, celebrate, and otherwise honor many aspects of the natural world from which we come — and which we are still a part of, whether we recognize it or not.

Singing is the first approach to music making for children. Children should sing every day, and singing should form the basis of every general music class, whatever other activities are included. One of my goals for teaching elementary music classes (K-5 or even K-6 is elementary school level in my opinion, despite the local truncation of elementary school after 4th grade) was to introduce a new song every class. In practice this was not strictly possible — often I taught folk songs and ballads with many verses, which would take more than one class for students to learn, and when performances loomed classes would often focus on polishing what we already knew — but in general it is a good policy which I was able to follow most of the time, and resulted in my students knowing hundreds of songs from memory by the time they left my program.

When I first began developing the music curriculum I taught at elementary and K-8 schools through the nineties until 2007, I began collecting songs suitable for children at graduated levels of ability, that described or reflected on a wide range of human activity and concerns, and that ultimately could become a “song literature” for the school. In this way at the schools where I taught, singing became not only an avenue for students to develop musical skills and to learn about the world and the musical tradition itself, but also became a means for developing community. Students sang together regularly outside of music class — whether in organized assemblies or spontaneously even across grade levels, and all students held collectively a body of songs that was shared by the entire school community. In this way, music, and singing became a vital part of school culture.

The elementary school song literature comprised mostly English language folk songs and canons from the United States, Canada, the British Isles, and Australia, augmented by songs in other languages including Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew, as well as African and Asian languages (or songs with texts translated to English from these languages). Occasionally I would teach contemporary songs but for the most part the emphasis was on traditional literature. Our musical tradition is some thousand years old and it is my feeling that if students do not become acquainted with this tradition when they are children, when will they? It is a vast tradition, unrivaled by any other art form, and it is the responsibility of the music teacher to give his or her students the means to appreciate and access this tradition so that they can incorporate it into their own lives according to their own needs and inclinations. From a technical and musical standpoint, the elementary school song literature provided a rich repertoire of training material which gave students the opportunity to develop their musical skills to a high degree before they hit puberty. It included dozens of canons from simple rounds to catches of considerable complexity requiring an extended vocal range, providing young singers many experiences singing harmony and opportunities to develop musical independence.

Each year I would find new songs to add to this curriculum and others which I had taught might drop away for a year or two, but there were some songs that I felt it was important for every student who participated in my program to learn, and most of these I would teach or review every year. “Sumer Is Icumen” In is one of these songs. It is a Medieval rota — the ancestor of the musical form that would be known later as a round — and is the oldest known example of six-part polyphony, and also one of the oldest surviving example of counterpoint. The manuscript in which it is preserved was copied in the early 1260s. The text, which is in Middle English (think Chaucer, who lived roughly a century later), is a celebration of the beginning of summer. I would invariably teach this to my students at the end of the school year, often featuring it as a part of spring performances.

“Sumer Is Icumen” In consists of a four-part canon sung over a two-part burden (or pes, as it is called in the original score). As with many canons, there are a variety of ways in which it can be performed.

One arrangement I commonly used with upper elementary students included students on recorders and strings (playing the same parts as the singers). The entire choir would sing the song in unison twice: first over a simple ostinato on cello, then over the burden played in two parts by recorders and strings. The burden continued through the rest of the arrangement, the choir singing the canon first in two parts, and finally in four.

Years later when I was a high school choir director at Nashville School of the Arts, I brought “Sumer Is Icumen” In to the program’s Early Music Consort, a female choir that also included a small string ensemble and studied mostly Medieval and Renaissance literature.

For this ensemble my arrangement began with the choir singing the burden and the strings playing the canon in two parts, followed by a two part presentation of the canon by choir and strings, and finally the choir performing the canon in four parts over a pizzicato burden by the strings, who revert back to arco for the ending.

I was struck by how different my experience was teaching the canon to high schoolers than to elementary school students. Both groups showed equal enthusiasm for the piece, exhibiting delight in the intricacies of the counterpoint, the rising and falling melodic lines, and in the challenge of maintaining independence when singing in canon. But the high schoolers — most of whom had little or no musical training before they entered my program in ninth grade – had much more difficulty in learning it, and the process took a lot longer. Having taught the same piece to students in both elementary and high school, the experience was yet another (albeit unscientific) confirmation of my impression that while more mature students (with training) are capable of mastering music of greater complexity and difficulty, they do not assimilate material anywhere near as readily as younger students. In general, older students require many more repetitions (i.e. more practice time) to master the music under study — and therefore, they will learn less material given the same amount of class or rehearsal time. This is especially true if the teacher must also impart fundamentals that should have been learned when the students were younger.

Which is to say: it is absolutely crucial that children receive musical training when they are in elementary school – when the “developmental window” is thrown wide open for them — the time in their lives when they are able to do the most with it to build solid skills and an inclination to include music as part of their lives when they are older, even though this time of life may not be the most convenient for their families, their schools, their school districts, or the standardized testing schedule.

Above are only a couple of possibilities for student performances of “Sumer Is Icumen” In. The song is often found in anthologies of early English music or collections of canons published the last fifty years or so, but I am not aware that many school music teachers bring it to their students unfortunately (at least I have never met one who admitted that they did).

It’s received some attention from composers and been utilized in music for film and television as well over the years. Notably, in English composer Benjamin Britten’s massive choral Spring Symphony, Op. 44 (for three soloists, mixed choir, boys’ choir, and orchestra), the boys’ choir sings “Sumer Is Icumen” In at the the climax of the fourth movement.

Less momentous but also of interest, Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach included a rather silly version of the song “Summer Is A Cumin Seed” in his oratorio The Seasonings.

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