Mirie it is while sumer ilast

It’s not a seasonal poem to be sure, but here is an interesting essay on the earliest surviving secular song in English (via Daniel Gullo). Abstract:

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.

Check it out.

Alma Mater

I confess that I’ve never liked Reinhardt’s alma mater. Here are the lyrics (sung to the tune of Annie Lisle, like the alma maters of any number of other colleges in the land):

1. Far up in the mountains azure
Blest by ideals true,
With influence most inspiring,
Reinhardt we love you.

We will praise thee, ever praise thee,
Be always sincere;
We’ll uphold thy purpose high
Alma mater dear.

2. In thy splendor stand forever,
Spread thy fame afar;
Give to all a helping hand,
Be our guiding star.


3. In our memory cherished ever,
We will loyal be;
May each year bring forth more honor,
Is our hope for thee.


What’s wrong with this? Many things:

1. “Mountains azure” – the “poetic” inversion of placing the adjective after the noun (and choosing the archaic word “azure” over plain old “blue”) is precious. Besides, we’re not even in the mountains!

2. “Blest by ideals true” – more of the same archaism (“blest”) and inversion – and can one have “true” ideals? High ideals or noble ideals, maybe, but what is a “true” ideal? And is one ever “blessed” by an ideal? You actively choose your ideals and you hold them firmly, but no one provides them for you, as the word “blest” implies.

3. “Influence” does not work with the tune – you have to pronounce it “inFLUence” as you sing it – and can influence be “inspiring”?! Influence can be deep, powerful or significant, but when was the last time you were “most inspired” (or even just “inspired”) by someone’s influence?

4. “You/thee” – why the shift from “we love you” to “we will praise thee”? If you must use archaisms, then at least be consistent.

5. “Be always sincere” – I suppose that this line follows from the previous one, as though it says in prose, “We will praise thee, and [we will] always be sincere.” But it sounds like an exhortation to Reinhardt to be sincere. I think this line could be better written.

6. “Purpose high” – more inversion, and while one can certainly have a high purpose, scansion is a problem here: you have to sing “hi-igh” to have the word match the tune.

7. In the second stanza, there is a reference to a “helping hand” (“ha-and”) followed by one to a “guiding star.” These images do not clash but they probably comprise a mixed metaphor (and are somewhat clichéd anyway). Why not pick one image and sustain it for two lines?

8. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the third stanza but the first line does form a dangling modifier. With it we ostensibly tell Reinhardt that it will be cherished in our memory, and that we will be loyal, but grammatically it says that we will be loyal in our memory, i.e. we will remember being loyal, although we may no longer be loyal.

Finally, and in addition to everything else, the whole thing is rather tepid. Apart from the metaphoric “hand” and “star” in the second stanza, the only concrete image in the whole composition is “mountains” in the first line, and as noted above it is inapt. Otherwise the song is entirely abstract. Compare it with the first stanza of another college’s alma mater that I happen to know:

Dear Old Dartmouth give a rouse
For the College on the hill
For the lone pine above her
And the loyal ones who love her
Give a rouse, give a rouse, with a will!
For the sons of old Dartmouth,
And the daughters of Dartmouth
Though ’round the girdled earth they roam
Her spell on them remains
They have the still north in their hearts
The hill winds in their veins
And the granite of New Hampshire
In their muscles and their brains.

Everyone always chuckled the first time they heard that Dartmothians have granite in their brains, but apart from that image this song works in a way that Reinhardt’s simply does not. For one, the tune is unique (and sounds pretty good, too), and fits the lyrics. For two, the images are appropriate: Dartmouth really is on a hill, really is in New Hampshire, and really did have a lone pine above her. The “still north” and the “hill winds” are also appropriate. “Girdled earth” might be an archaism, or at least eccentric, but I say it works here.

If Reinhardt can change from being an academy to a college to a university, or change its marketing slogan every three years or so (Challenge and Care > The Way College Should Be > Building Lives, Shaping Futures), then why can’t we unveil a new alma mater for next year’s graduation? Of course I don’t know anything about lyrical or musical composition, but I should think that someone around here does. Leap to it, new creative writing program and award-winning music program! Let’s see what you’ve got in your brains.

Jingle Bells

I have no idea whether any of this is true but it’s certainly seasonal – and historical! From the Daybreak South program on CBC News. Note the Georgia angle.


Jingle Bells Christmas song started as a drinking song written by a ‘jerk’

Here’s the truth about Jingle Bells. It’s not a Christmas song — it’s a Thanksgiving song. It’s not a jolly family song — it’s a drinking song. It’s at the centre of a nasty dispute, and it was written by a ‘jerk’.

The real story of Jingle Bells starts on the banks of the Mystic River in New England, just upstream from Boston, in Medford, Mass.

If you walk along High Street, and stop at Rosetti Optical, you’ll find a plaque, which reads

Jingle Bells composed here. On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850, James Pierpont wrote the song Jingle Bells.

Kyna Hamill, professor of literature at Boston University and vice-president of the Medford Historical Society, spoke to Daybreak South’s Chris Walker about the origins of Jingle Bells.

As you might expect, the story begins with a one-horse open sleigh.

“Medford is home to a series of sleigh races that used to occur on a street called Salem Street, and because of this event, which pretty much happened in the middle of the 19th century, these sleigh races — which you could pretty much call drag races  — down this street was one of the most popular events,” said Hamill.

“Because of that, the influence and inspiration of the song, we believe came from those races.”

Who was the author of Jingle Bells, James Lord Pierpont?

“He’s kind of a jerk, actually. He would leave all of the time. He went out west to try to make his way with the gold rush. He went all over the place and left his wife with his father,” said Hamill.

Then when his wife died, he quickly remarried and abandoned his kids.

“He didn’t come, apparently, to his first wife’s funeral. He’s sort of not a nice guy.”

Hamill said there’s more to the song itself. It was never a Christmas song.

“If you think about the fact that one of the great industries of Medford was rum-making, and if you really think about the lyrics of the song, with the lens that these are drag races that are happening at top speed down the centre of this street, one of the suggestions is that it’s actually a drinking song,” she said.

“Some of the words are actually associated with the idea that this is a song you sing while you’re drunk, talking about an event that happened while they were drunk.”

‘People who love the history of Christmas will probably not like this answer’

Take a look at the lyrics in the second verse of Jingle Bells:

A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.

“If you want to go psychological about this, he’s a guy who was under the shadow of this very rigid father, who was totally against drinking, and was in the temperance movement, and was part of the abolitionist movement and took himself very seriously,” said Hamill.

“It’s kind of a song about a young guy breaking away from his father’s shadow.

“People who love the history of Christmas will probably not like this answer, but I think that there’s something about the relationship between the father and the son which kind of shows how he doesn’t want to be like his father in this song. He wants to have fun.”

So how did a drinking song by a deadbeat dad under the thumb of his strict father ever get to be the Christmas song of record?

“There’s people that have really strong conspiracy theories about this song. I really don’t know why people get so impassioned about this song,” Hamill said.

Those conspiracy theories originate in Savannah, Ga., where residents believe the people of Medford are stealing their song.

The theory stems from the fact that when Pierpont’s first wife died, he moved to Savannah, married the mayor’s daughter, and became pastor at the church.

During a Thanksgiving service, he led the congregation in a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells. They loved it, and he performed it again a month later at Christmas.

Thus, Jingle Bells became a Christmas song — Savannah’s Christmas song.

One more thing about Jingle Bells.

Some 115 years after it was written in a pub in Medford, Jingle Bells became the first song ever broadcast to earth from space, during a Gemini mission in 1965.


Pictures and audio at the link.


From the Guardian, via my friend John Terauds:


Chance discovery casts new light on origins of polyphonic music

PhD student happens upon fragment in British Library suggesting modern multi-part music evolved earlier than was thought.

Maev Kennedy

A few lines of music written down 1,100 years ago, spotted by chance by a postgraduate student in a manuscript in the British Library, have proved to be the earliest example of polyphonic choral music, where the voices sing different melodies combining to make one composition.

The scrap of music, which would have lasted no more than a few seconds, was written on the bottom of a page of a portrait of a saint and has been dated to around AD 900. Although there are very early treatises on such music, the discovery is the earliest practical example intended for use by singers – the next oldest known is from a collection known as the Winchester Troper, originally made for Winchester cathedral and dated to around 1000.

The short composition in praise of Saint Boniface was spotted by chance by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, Cambridge, while he was an intern at the British Library. Varelli, who specialises in early music notation, spotted that the piece was written for two voices. He believes its significance was missed by other scholars because the notation, which pre-dates the invention of the stave, is hard to read for non-specialists.

He said the unknown composer was already experimenting with the style, breaking the rules as they then stood. “What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected. Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development. The conventions were less rules to be followed than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.”

Although the composer and the origin of the manuscript are unknown, Varelli,who has put extensive detective work into his discovery, believes the style of notation, known as Eastern Palaeofrankish, suggests it came from a monastery in the region of Düsseldorf or Paderborn in modern north-west Germany.

The piece was written on the blank space at the bottom of a page of the life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims. Another scribe has added a Latin inscription at the top of the page that translates as “which is celebrated on December 1”. Varelli said the date helped narrow his search for the origin of the manuscript, because although most monastic houses celebrated the saint’s day on April 30, a handful in Germany marked it on December 1 instead.

The style would be refined and developed for many centuries, becoming far more elaborate than a simple chant for two monks.

“The rules being applied here laid the foundations for those that developed and governed the majority of western music history for the next thousand years. This discovery shows how they were evolving, and how they existed in a constant state of transformation, around the year 900.”

Footnoting History

My friend Elizabeth Keohane helps run Footnoting History, a series of podcasts on historical topics, which I recommend to you. The latest one is “Protest Pop and Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.” Intro:

As the Queen celebrated her 25th year on the throne, England was restless, on the verge of anarchy, and sweating out the hottest summer in years. God Save the Queen went to the top of the charts, and the Sex Pistols, followed later by other acts, vented their rage at the royal family. We will revisit the tumultuous year of 1977 as our starting point to explore the British musicians who protested the monarchy in the late 1970s and 1980s.

I’m afraid that the podcast kept stopping on my computer and I haven’t been able to listen to it all. I can say that the other acts are the Smiths and the Stone Roses. Click on it and see if it works for you… and if so, check out some of the other FN podcasts!

(I confess to being conflicted about that latest podcast. I was never a big Sex Pistols fan but I like the Smiths and the Stone Roses quite a lot. Their anti-monarchical pose, however, I have always found rather adolescent. See Sinclair McKay’s reminiscences of the Silver Jubilee in the Spectator.)