Sunday, February 7, 2016

Imagine That: Earliest Surviving Secular Song Is An English Guy Talking About The Weather

I grew up being told Sumer Is Icumen In was the earliest surviving but this one is a decade or two older, as the post points out.
Adios cuckoo, hello English guy griping* about the cold and wind.

From Early Music Muse:

Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English
 Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text. With a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, a short survey of the social background, a step by step reconstruction of the music, and a video with medieval harp accompaniment of the reconstructed song.

In the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is a manuscript Book of Psalms, written in Latin on parchment, dated to the second half of the 12th century. It has not survived completely intact, and is now classified for posterity as MS. Rawl. G. 22, part of the collection of 18th century antiquarian Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755).

In the first half of the 13th century, a few decades after the completion of the Book of Psalms, a single unknown writer, not the original scribe, added a flyleaf, a blank page at the beginning of the book. On this, in casual handwriting, was written the music and words to two French songs and the music and a single verse of what is now the earliest surviving secular song in English, [M]irie it is while sumer ilast. As you see on the right, the parchment is damaged by stains and holes in the body and by tears around the edge, but thankfully not so much that we can’t make out the words and roughly-written music.

Words: meaning and translation
[M]Irie it is while summer ilast with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and fast.
The manuscript shows several visual differences to modern handwriting: an s looks more like an f; the equivalent of w looks like a y backwards; and what looks like a small d with a line through is an equivalent of th. Almost all modern sources spell the opening word “Miri”, pronounced with two syllables, but we see in the original manuscript that this is a repeated mistake: the spelling is “Mirie” and the music clearly has three notes at the same pitch for the word, indicating the pronunciation, “Mir-i-e”.

My translation into modern English without aiming at scansion:
Merry it is while summer lasts with birdsong
but now, close by, the winds blast and the weather is powerful.
Oh, oh, I exclaim, this night is long
And I also am done much wrong.
[I] sorrow and mourn and go without food.
A man with two hoods, his inner hood keeping him warm, 
wrapped up in clothes against the cold and drying his shoe 
over a fire. An image from the month of February in a calendar, 
part of a French Psalter, Royal MS 2 B II, f. 1v, c. 1250,
 contemporaneous with Mirie it is.
A translation which aims at general accuracy without literal exactitude, so that the words fit the melody rhythmically:....MUCH MORE
How the 1 or 2% lived: the aristocracy dressed for throwing snowballs. 
This is January, from a fresco representing the 12 months of the year, 
 at the Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trent, Italy, dated 1405–1410.
HT: MetaFilter
*It's not just the English of course, see also:
World's Oldest Weather Report Found in Egypt: It Was Raining, People Were Crabby
Previous Climate Change Created a Race of Angry Runts