The recently released single ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ is taken from the forthcoming album of the same name, scheduled for October 2021.
Reading in Berkshire, England is a modest, down-to-earth sort of place; it doesn’t readily boast about its treasures but tucks them away. Even the townsfolk are largely unaware of its Museum Of English Rural Life, or the painstakingly accurate reproduction of The Bayeux Tapestry hiding upstairs in the main museum. Or even Reading University, nestling in parkland to the south of the town centre. But in 1121 when King Henry I built Reading Abbey, the unmissable building would have defined the town. Henry VIII eventually brought it to ruins, but at the time Reading could boast one of the longest churches in England, and one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries.
It was here that the music for this wonderful song Sumer Is Icumen In was discovered. The manuscript dates from 1261 and is the first known example of secular, polyphonic (harmonised) music. With lyrics in middle English, it is written as a continuous round for four to six unaccompanied voices. An anthem to joy and a jubilant celebration of summer, it now lands firmly in the 21st century in this new arrangement by Simon Mayor and Hilary James. The original vocal parts are retained – of course! – but the mandolin, violin and penny whistle lead a small orchestra of acoustic instruments through new instrumental sections in various keys, weaving a complex tapestry of sound until the voices reprise and fade into the Abbey’s once mighty acoustic.
Sumer Is Icumen In is released as Reading celebrates the 900th anniversary of the founding of its Abbey. The ruined remains, a beautifully evocative monument, were recently made safe and renovated by Reading Council, creating ‘The Abbey Quarter’, now the town’s main heritage destination.
King Henry I is known to have been buried before the High Altar, now thought to lie ignominiously beneath the car park of neighbouring Reading Gaol. But given the discovery of Richard III in a similar place in Leicester, who knows what new surprises Reading Abbey may have in store?