Category Archives: Sloane 2593

How to Pronounce Boris Ord’s Adam lay Ybownden

Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybownden is a popular Christmas piece amongst amateur and professional choirs alike for its simplicity and and beauty. There have been many other settings of this text by, amongst others, Thea Musgrave and Howard Skempton.

It was in searching for the source of this text that I happened across Thomas Wright’s collection Carols and Songs from a manuscript in the British Museum, a collection of transcriptions from the 14th/15th century Manuscript Sloane MS 2593, currently kept in The British Library. I have written two settings which you can find out about here and here.

But, how to pronounce the Middle English? It is one of those settings that choirs often perform assuming a sort-of modern English pronunciation.

Having looked into how to pronounce Britten’s Wolcum Yule, which is based on a text from the same collection (see this blog post). I thought I’d follow on with this little Middle English gem.

If you’re impatient to skip to the transliteration, please by all means click here.

The principals

I am going to be using the same principals as my Wolcum Yule post, so the first thing we’ll need is the source text, or rather the copy I have from Songs and Carols from a 15th Century Manuscript in the British Museum which takes it from the Sloane MS 2593, now residing The British Library:

Source: Thomas Wright Songs and Carols from a 15th Century Manuscript in the British Museum (archive.org).

Let’s start with the first line:

Adam lay i-bowndyn

Note straight away the difference in spelling from the Orde (Adam lay ybounden). It could be that Orde used a different source. It’s unclear at this point. We shall use this source however, as it’s all I have presently.

The Middle English Alliterative Poetry blog asserts that “Consonants are pronounced as in Modern English except  ȝ/gh, which represents /x/, the guttural sound in German  Loch“, which for consonants makes our job here pretty easy.

Vowels are more difficult to ascertain, and most medieval pronunciation guides talk about short vowels and long vowels. To understand what that means here is a (hopefully) useful chart:

Modern
Vowel
Short
(both)
Modern Long exampleMiddle Long
acat, fatmate, datefather
ebet, fretmeet, feedblame, fame
isit, fitsight, might, whitewheat, meet
odot, trot, lotboat, load, homeshoe, loo, boo
ubut, mullmule, fool, luteflour, How,

Determining which vowels are short and long is more tricky but so long as there is a modern equivalent, you can refer to that modern world as it is etymologically derived. These vowels in bold are long, and underlined are short:

Adam l[ay] [i]-b[ow]nd[yn]

Adam lay bound

[i] – following the forms of binden in this entry on Middle English Compendium I would hazard that this is interchangeable with a y or a yogh (ȝ) character which means it should be long e.g. pronounced ee in middle English.

[yn] – similarly this is a common inflection at the end of the word, the word itself being “bownd”. The presence of an n suggests to me that this inflection should be sung as part of the meter of the song.

[ay] – diphthong of the two long vowels a (father) and i (meet)

[ow] – This diphthong is interchangeable with ou. Dipthongs are pronounced by adding the two long vowels together so thou is o (shoe) + u (flour), to sound like modern English grow, according to Middle English Alliterative Poetry.

Rather than delve into the tricksy and obscure world of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), here is a likely transliteration (i.e. to be read out as if it were modern English):

Adam lahy eebohndin

Now that we’ve got the principles and method down, let’s investigate the rest of this short poem:

ADAM l[ay] i-b[ow]ndyn,
b[ow]ndyn in a bond,
F[ow]r[e] th[ow]sand wynter
th[ow]t he not to long;
And al was for an appil,
an [appul] that he tok,
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in her[e] book.
[Ne] hadd[e] the appil tak[e] ben,
the appil taken ben,
[Ne] hadd[e] never [ou]r lady
a ben heven[e] quen
Blyssid be the tym[e]
that appil tak[e] was!
Th[ere]for[e] we [mown] syngyn
D[eo] gracias
ADAM lay bound,
bound in a bond,
Four thousand winter
thought he not to long;
And all was for an apple,
an apple that he took,
As clerks find written
in here book.
Nor had the apple taken been,
the apple taken been,
Nor had never our lady
a been heaven queen
Blessed be the time
that apple taken was!
Therefore we [shall] sing
Deo gracias

[appul] – alternative spelling of apple. It’s not clear whether this is a spelling mistake or a deliberate other pronunciation of the word. According to the Middle English Compendium it refers to “Any kind of fruit” and of course the forbidden fruit of paradise to which it refers here. I’m taking it at face value here

[Ne] – this word means “nor”. It’s not clear whether it would be long or short but looking at the other word forms in Middle English Compendium ni, nen, nin and also its elision forms e.g. nafter (nor after) would suggest a schwa, or short form, So I’m guessing it would be short vowel eh as in bread. Like a lot of Middle English pronunciation, it goes against my instincts (I’ve always thought of it as ney)

[ere] – as most guides assert, all of the consonants are pronounced in Middle English, and all Rs are rolled. In this case where in modern English ere results in a long voiced r consonant, this should result in vowel-rolled R- vowel. If we think of There and fore being two distinct words as part of a portmanteau then the last vowel of there is probably an inflection, my guess for this is Ther*[e]for*[e] i.e. the e after the initial r is a schwa (neutral vowel) and probably short.

[mown] – I’ve seperated this out as it’s a curious word (meaning must, or shall) that still exists in some dialects. In northern England for example “mun”. According to my own assumptions the pronunciation here should be “mohn” but perhaps it should be more like möen

[eo] – this transliteration assumes that Latin follows the same rules as Middle English at this point. Conveniently this diphthong comes out with the same first vowel as we would naturally pronounce it – D-ay-(oh in modern English, oo in Middle English)

Summary and Transliteration

Here is my transliteration of Adam lay I-bownden. It assumes a neutral British accent when reading out.

Adam lahy eebohndin
bohndin in a bond,
Fohr*[e] thohsand winter
thoht hei not too long;
And all was for an appil,
an appul that hei took,
As cler*kes feendin wr*etin
in heyr*[e] bohk.
Ne had[e] the appil tahk[e] beyn
the appil tahken beyn,
Ne hadd[e] never ohr* lahdy
a beyn heaven[e] queyn
Blissid bey the teem[e]
that appil tahk[e] was!
Ther*[e]for*[e] wey mohn singin
Dayoo Gr*aceeas

[e] = schwa neutral vowel inflection. Not necessarily said and possibly left out mostly when singing, depending on the meter scheme.

r* = rolled R

While it is seductive to try and use these pronunciations in practice, there are definite problems with knowing where to place extra syllables. It would be fun to try, but this is meant as more of an exercise in curiousity.

I am no expert in Middle English Pronunciation and have simply joined dots that are readily available on the internet. If you know better and have anything to add or change, please do leave a comment, or contact me.

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How to pronounce Benjamin Britten’s “Wolcum Yule”

During the mid 20th century, the uncovering of some important manuscripts led to a renewed interest in medieval music and poetry. Composer Benjamin Britten was involved in creating editions of newly uncovered Purcell manuscripts and himself wrote a large collection of settings of Middle English and Medieval poetry.

Perhaps his most well known is the carol “Wolcum Yule” from Ceremony of Carols. It’s natural for choir masters to be confused approaching this work by some unusual words such as “lefe”, and may be rightly confused as to how to pronounce it.

If you are one of these directors and would like to skip the explanation, please skip to the end, where there is a full summary transliteration.

Let’s go back to the source

I’ll start by saying that I do not know precisely the source of Britten’s text. What I do have is a transcription of it in British Library Sloane MS 2593, and I have set this text as part of my Sloane 2593 project. This transcription is from Songs and Carols from a manuscript in the British Museum Collected by Thomas Wright in 1856. For details of this setting click here.

Straight away we can see that Britten has put in the work already:

Wolcum, ȝol, thou mery man,

The Middle English Alliterative Poetry blog asserts that “Consonants are pronounced as in Modern English except  ȝ/gh, which represents /x/, the guttural sound in German  Loch“, which makes our job here pretty easy except for the yogh (ȝ) character in ȝol, which this guide on folgerpedia asserts should sound more like a modern “y” at the beginning of the word, which we will follow here.

Vowels are more difficult to ascertain, and most medieval pronunciation guides talk about short vowels and long vowels. To understand what that means here is a (hopefully) useful chart:

Modern
Vowel
Short
(both)
Modern Long exampleMiddle Long
acat, fatmate, datefather
ebet, fretmeet, feedblame, fame
isit, fitsight, might, whitewheat, meet
odot, trot, lotboat, load, homeshoe, loo, boo
ubut, mullmule, fool, luteflour, How,

Determining which vowels are short and long is more tricky but so long as there is a modern equivalent, you can refer to that modern world as it is etymologically derived. These vowels in bold are long, and underlined are short:

Welcome Yule, th[ou] merr[y] man

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,

[ou] – diphthongs are pronounced by adding the two vowels together so thou is o (shoe) + u (flour), to sound like modern English grow, according to Middle English Alliterative Poetry.

[y] – this is fairly interchangeable with i. At the end of the word like this is is long (as in wheat)

In IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) this hopefully (according to my fumblings with ToPhonetics) comes out as:

‘wɒlkʌm juːl ðəʊ ˈmɛri mən

But it might be more helpful and less time consuming to create a likely transliteration (a version spelled out in near-english which will result in the right pronunciation). This transliteration assumes a received British-English accent:

Wolcum Yule, thoh merry man,

Ok, it took some work to figure out that Britten was basically right, except in the pronunciation of “thou” (probably). Now we have the basics, let’s speed the process up for the refrain and first verse:

Refrain and Verse 1

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,
In wor[ch]epe of this holy d[ay].
Welcome yule, thou merry man
In worship of this holy day.
WOLCUM be th[ou], heven[e] kyng,
Wolcum, bo[r]n in on mo[rw]enyng,
Wolcum, for hom we [x]al syng,
Welcome be th[ou], heaven king,
Welcome, born in one morning
Welcome, for whom we shall sing,

[ch] – while ch is usually pronounced as in church, except that this word is clearly worship, as in devoutly, and the majority of spellings listed under the citations of the Middle English Dictionary are spelled with sch or sh, both pronounced sh.

[ay] – diphthong of a (father) and y (feet). in IPA ɑɪ. We’ll transliterate this as “dahy”

[e] – e at the end of the word is pronounced “where it is etymologically justified” according to Middle Ensligh Alliterative Poetry, and sites its entry in the Middle English Dictionary (this is a useful entry gate to the Middle English Compendium, an invaluable resource). In this case, heven has a wide variety of forms including hevenes and heavenen so it is probably ok to assume that the e might have been pronounced. Daniel Donoghue’s History of the English Language workbook asserts that in Chaucer’s English this ending inflection would have been pronounced in most cases, except when followed by a vowel.

An e at the end of the word would be an inflection and pronounced as a schwa i.e. a neutral vowel, which to me means that it would be legitimate to make it short and possibly leave it out when singing. It would be an interesting study to see how and when this inflection impacts on the meter of the verse.

[r] – Rs in Middle English are always rolled, according to all of my sources.

[x] – this is pronounced sh as in she or shall.

Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

[e] denotes schwa inflection
* denotes tongue trill

Verse 2

Wolc[o]m be ȝe, Stefn[e] and Jon,
Wolc[o]m[e], Innocentes everychon ;
Wolcum, [Th]omas, ma[r]ter on ;
Welcome be ye, Steven and John,
Welcome, Innocents everyone;
Welcome, Thomas, master one;

[o] -presumably a spelling mistake

[Th] – the etymology of the name Thomas points to a pronunciation of t in most languages as apposed to th as in those.

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Verse 3

Wolcum be ȝe, good new[e] ȝer[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] day, both[e] in [fer[e]] ;
Wolcum, seyntes, [lef] and dere ;
Welcome be ye, good new year,
Welcome, twelfth day, both [in a group];
Welcome, saints, [loved] and dear;

[fere] – this word, meaning in companionship, or together, brotherhood, is likely rhymed with ȝere and dere, both of which have long e vowels in modern English so although there is no modern English equivalent (although a French equivalent frere) we can guess at a long e vowel.

[lef] – not so obvious is this word meaning loved. The Middle English Dictionary suggests this has a long vowel.

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Verse 4

Wolcum be ȝe, candylmess[e] ;
Wolcum be ȝe, qwyn of blys,
Wolcum both[e] to mor[e] and less[e];
Welcome be ye, Candlemas;
Welcome be ye, queen of bliss,
Welcome both to more and less;

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Verse 5

Wolcum be ȝe that arn here ;
Wolcum, all[e], and mak good cher[e] ;
Wolcum, all[e], another ȝer[e] 
Welcome be ye that are here;
Welcome, all, and make good cheer;
Welcome, all, another year

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]

In Summary (How to Pronounce Wolcum Yule”)

Here is my attempt at a pronunciation of Wolcum Yule based on the available web resources and written in a British-English transliteration. I am as ever very grateful for any corrections from actual Middle English students or professors. Please get in touch or leave a comment below.


Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]


[e] = e inflection, pronounced as a short schwa (open vowel). Not necessarily pronounced while singing.

r* = rolled r.


Britten was most likely aware of some of the issues of pronunciation but it is equally likely that research in this field has moved on since he wrote his setting. It would be problematic recreating this pronunciation in performance, however as with my own settings of Middle English poetry, I hope choirs will aim to illuminate the poetry of this era by selectively using a mix of Modern and Middle English language while performing.

I am no expert on Middle English and I am slowly making my way into the field by using the excellent work of people more knowledgeable than me, sources cited above, and in this blog listing some very useful Middle English and Medieval Resources. I am fascinated by this study, interested to know more and hope that it inspires other people to find out about the rich language of 14th/15th century England.

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Medieval Resources for Composers

thou wost wol little ho is thi foo.
you know well little who is your foe.

partial song from Sloane MS 2593

Owing to a growing interest in Medieval Music and manuscripts, partly because of the uncovering of key manuscripts in the mid 20th century, and partly owing to their dis-obfuscation and distribution into the hands of anyone that goes looking on the internet, there are more and more resources available for exploring these manuscripts, and these are great tools for composers on the hunt for interesting texts.

On this post are some useful links and resources to help you get your head around the sometimes mysterious and at other times deceptively similar Middle English. I will add to this post as I find more useful resources.

Manuscript Resources

archive.org

Originally the home of the wayback internet archive machine, this project has expanded to become an internet archive, including the wayback machine and every out of copyright archived PDF in existence. As a result it has some remarkable medieval texts and some remarkably banal ephemera from across the years. Searching “Christmas poetry” brings up a remarkable collection of texts from the last two centuries, and a surprising amount of mills and boons “on Christmas night” smut.

british library digitised manuscripts

A growing collection of manuscripts kept at The British Library which includes for example motets by Purcell in the hand of the composer. Surprisingly few complete manuscript collections on here as yet. (only a few pages of Sloane 2593 are available for example) but worth returning to. Also check out their blog which often has interesting updates.

imslp

A staple for out of copyright scores, the Petrucci project also includes many complete manuscripts and part books that are attributable earliest sources for a great deal of music.

gallica.bnf.fr

gallica is the digital arm of the incorporated Biblioteque Nationale Français and contains a huge store of original manuscripts and texts spanning several centuries. On there you will find original charpentier manuscripts, books of French carols and the earliest known Occitane alba En Un Vergier Sotz Fuella d’albespi, for example.

digital bodleian

The Bodleian Library is the jewel in the crown of Oxford University and contains some astonishing manuscripts. These are being digitised and the Bodleian already has a substantial number of digitised manuscripts from the 13th-15th century.

rism.info

This is an essential tool for finding early sources of music whether and includes useful information such as worldcat references and incipits from the texts themselves.

The Digital Index of Middle English Verse

This is a catalogue of verse and where to find it in which manuscript. Very useful for hunting down alternative sources and texts, and sorting out inconsistencies. Some insight on the entries themselves as to the nature of the poems.

Early English Books Online

Sadly EEBO is only available through the digital services of university libraries, and last time I checked only from their own network (not external logins). However, this is a treasure trove of early manuscripts and first editions of English verse, as well as early documents of all kinds.

Understanding Middle English

While there are plenty of other languages to get your head around when exploring older texts, this is the one I’ve spent most time puzzling over, and have accrued the most resources for. Here are a few useful links:

Middle English Compendium

This is an invaluable tool for demystifying the language. Owing to the huge variety of spellings that even run to completely different spellings for the same word, Middle English Compendium presents you with multiple possibilities, titled with the typical IPA pronunciation of the word and including hundreds of citations from medieval texts relating to each word. Even with this enormously useful tool it is very possible to choose the wrong meaning, and it’s worth spending some time going through the different possibilities.

Complete Old English by Mark Atherton

This is a wonderful step by step guide to learning Old English, particularly Anglo Saxon, Although this is typically older text and therefore more incomprehensible as a modern English speaker, this is a good place to start when understanding and pronouncing Middle English and features a lot of the same concepts.

Middle English Pronunciation

Pronunciation of Middle English is an inexact science and largely based on well informed conjecture, however I would posit that most experts opinions are more accurate than mine, so I choose to use them. The aspect of Middle English pronunciation that is made the most of is the “Great Vowel Shift”, which affects basically the pronunciation of “long” vowels. Here are a couple of useful cheat-sheet style links:

History of the English Language Workbook by Daniel Donoghue at Harvard University

This has useful audio examples and a good explanation of the concepts of pronunciation of Chaucerian Middle English.

Middle English Alliterative Poetry

This has a useful guide to the long vowel shift complete with diagrams.

Tips and Tricks for Pronouncing Middle English (pdf)

This is a very useful short-form guide if you just need a quick reference.

Nunc Gaudet Maria for SATB choir with divisi

Music by Edward Caine
Words: Anonymous 14th/15th Century

Nunc Gaudet Maria (“We worship Mary”) is one of many Marian hymns found in the Sloane 2593 Manuscript.

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

Nunc Gaudet Maria struck me as an interesting text because of the chorus:

Source: Wright, T, Songs and Carols from a manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century

Although the a, a, a, a probably refers to the repetition of the word “Alleluia” (so many of these settings start that way), I was interested in being more literal with this setting, and wanted to create a hocket between singers with the “a” of Maria. I imagine these singers to be placed in the gallery at different sides of the church.

We could easily replace the “Maria” of this hocket with “Allelujah” if we fancied but at this point I should site an influence here –

This hocket is inspired by Sean Doherty’s setting of “A newe werke is come at hand”, which was performed by Ex Cathedra in the same year that they performed my “Jankyn at the Angnus”. It is wonderful setting and well worth a listen by this up and coming composer.

I still had in my head the harmonic basis of the last setting I’d written “Jhesu, Jhesu, saf us allle thorw thy vertu”, so the harmonic context for the opening of this piece is an A major chord in root position, The introduction of the tenors singing “Nunc gaudet Maria” (we praise Mary), leading to A B major chord for heightened interest and to influence the hocket.

The A major sonority is a ruse though, and the basis for the piece is E minor. I can’t claim to have planned the nature of the theme and harmony beyond using my ears and imagination, but I enjoy the shape of it, staring dark (E minor) and spread out, and then ending up brighter (A major) and close together. The antithesis of this thesis is an outward motion spreading out, and the melody ends in unison, a powerful tool in Choral writing.

I am aware of the lack of attention to detail when it comes to consecutive 5ths. My ear often forgives this sonority and I enjoy little quirks of harmony, here for example the rogue C# in the tenor line.

Note the harmony never resolves but keeps the tension going, following on from the opening by ending on a B major chord. Movement is also maintained by interjections of the soprano hocket. When the verse melody repeats, this time with a more regular 3/4 rhythm and fewer, changed harmonies. To give the ear a break and keep it interested, the hocket is replaced by interjections from two solo men.

The last two verses I felt deserved a different treatment and I somehow needed to resolve the harmonies. C major saves me and gives an uplifting and exciting change of texture and the harmonies eventually resolve on to E major in a nod to the tierce de picardy, the whole choir now echoing the hocket which began with the solo soprani.

Owing to the pace and tessiatura (how high in the voice) of this piece, I expect this would need a very good choir to do it justice, and one with 4 good soprano soloists.

Jhesu, Jhesu, Saf us alle thorw thy vertu for SATB choir

Jhesu, Jhesu, Saw us alle thorw [sic] thy vertu was written in the winter of 2020 under national lockdown. I had two rare daytimes when I could focus on composing, and fancied working on some more Sloane MS 2593 texts. It is as yet unperformed.

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

I chose Jhesu Jhesu saf us alle thorw[sic] thy virtue, as ever because I could imagine how I would start. Here I have to acknowledge an influence: Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. In my head I heard this repeated “Jhesu, Jhesu” being repeated by the women in an A major chord contracting to a B-D. 

This is essentially the opening to Britten’s Wolcum Yule and if you listen to it (video below) you’ll hear more devices which I’ve essentially copied, although not cynically – I just like the ideas and heard them that way. It causes me chagrin when I hear something and realises it’s someone elses thing – it’s not a deliberate attempt to copy Britten, I just can’t think of another way to set the text, and thought this would be fun.

While we talk about Britten, we can talk about the harmonic structure of the piece – These chords are a frequent device Britten uses. They are based on the tones of a squeezebox, melodian or early accordian. If you play a traditional non-chromatic harmonica you’ll notice these chords as you breath in and out – this allows you to go up and down the scale by breathing in and out alternatively and directing the flow of air over the tone generator. This is the same structure as inside these early accordians. The result is depending on which buttons you hold down and the direction of air going through it, you can create a progression of thirds. 

Another example of a Britten work that references this type of harmony is the wonderful Ballad of the Green Broom from Five Flower Songs op. 47:

This is particularly useful in this setting as to me the thirds evoke a rustic early setting and a peasant dance. It also gives me a convenient “escape” from traditional germanic harmony, something I enjoy doing to keep the language fresh. The men however follow an A major diatonic mode. The melody I thought of reminds me of a heroic, superman motif.

Of course, once I’ve set up a good context and repetative motif, the very first thing I want to do is tear it down, and that’s what I do, switching to the distant key of C# minor for the bulk middle section  (and in fact opening in Dorian mode in B major). Again I’m thinking of a peasant dance. 

The women in the choir continue to use the squeezebox paradigm, this time moving up and down the mode, modulating as they do up a third to the relative major.

In the third verse I need to acknowledge another influence in American folk musics and the “Sacred Harp” shape-note singing tradition. This lusty fifths-based harmony is joyous and I enjoy referencing it when I want the choir to express jubilation. Another feature is that the melody is often in the tenor and surrounded by higher harmonies

Of course, I needed to return to A major to conclude, and i do so with no transition. “grant us grace” gives me leave to snap into A major, and I re-establish the key by having a play on our squeezebox and a little virtuosity for the singers.

This piece is aimed at a high quality choir with a skilled director and singers. It is a difficult sing, but I think it would be very fun to perform.

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Jankyn at the Angnus for SATB choir and Organ

Jankyn at the Angnus is a carol that I wrote in the hope that Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra would perform it, and which they performed in their Christmas Music by Candlelight Series in 2019. It was also performed by community choir In Sound Company that year in St. James Church, Wollaston.

In it Somebody f**ks a priest. Merry Christmas Everybody!

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

This was one of the first MS Sloane 2593 settings I completed. I was drawn to the text because of its narrative function and because of this figure of “Jolly Jankyn” who seemed to be a larger-than-life character at the center of it. It has to be said that when I first set the words I did not fully understand them, and might have done it slightly differently if I did.

The Text

So, about that text. This is the last in the collection and an anonymous poet, but contemporary with figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote Cantebury Tales. In Cantebury Tales there are quite a few references to “Jankyn” (a medieval variant of “John”) and “Alison”, often synonymous with a lady of, well, dalliance. The carol is the telling of the yule day service and is told from the perspective of Alison. Jankyn, the clergyman, is taking the service. When Alison comes up to kiss the pax board (a tradition in which to avoid the spread of disease and encourage sin the parishoners kiss a board one by one instead of each other), Jankyn “twinkles, but says nowt” and “upon my foot he treads”, essentially telling her to keep quiet. 

The setting is full of puns and is intermingled with religious ceremony and ritual. The refrain “Jankyn sing it merry with Aleyson”, meant to rhyme with “eleison”, part of the kyrie eleison chant (“Lord have Mercy upon us”). The punchline is a mixture of the sacred and the profane: “Cryst from shame me schylde, alas! I go with chyld”. Note in modern English this is a half-rhyme but it is likely that in 15th century England schylde would rhyme with chyld.

One of the sources for the analysis of this poem is a very interesting and thorough blog post on the website love-literature.com.

The Setting

It surprised me when this was performed that a number of people asked me if it was inspired by the 14th century round “sumer is icumen in” and indeed the opening does bear striking resemblance to it, as evinced when Jeffrey Skidmore introduced the piece with s small section of it on the organ and how perfectly it fitted. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been working for Ex Cathedra for over 4 years now and these influences are bound to drift in unannounced. 

In fact I first heard the opening in my head while wondering through the grand central station in Birmingham, simply thinking about what to do with the repeated “kyrie” and “so kyrie” I was reminded of the squeezebox and its association with folk musics and of the works of Benjamin Britten, who uses it frequently. While I was less dogmatic in my use of it than in Jhesu, Jhesu, Saf us alle throw thy vertu, this is what I opened this setting with – a squeezebox playing in and out. A peasant dance.

Similarly when the men come in they are performing a heavy peasant dance. I’m put in mind of Breugel’s “Wedding Dance”. To that end it is rhythmic and fun. I imagine this yule day to be a whirlwind of activity and excitement. I used a simple hemiola in the melody – This was a challenge for the singers and we took to using a tambourine in rehearsal to get them used to performing it.

Jankyn at the angnus
beryt the pax brede,
he twynkelid, but sayd nowt,
and on myn fot he trede.

This line about Jankyn bearing the pax board is sung by the men but now that I know more about the poem, it should probably be sung by the women. I might still change it to better reflect the text.

Also, I chose to leave out a couple of lines from the poem in this iteration which might find their way into a future iteration of the carol. It just felt like too much text at the time, and there is a change in structure which I was ill-equipped to deal with at the time, wanting to leave the bulk of the setting as a simple repetitive structure. It’s also problematic in terms of meaning:

Jankyn crakit notes,
an hunderid on a knot,
And ƺyt he hakkyt hem smallere
than wortes to the pot.

(Jankyn cracked (“sung”) notes,
a hundred (at a time),
and yet he hacked them smaller
than (vegetable matter) for the (stew)pot

I can imagine setting this and having a solo Jankyn perform long melismatic passages, however it would not not necessarily fit with the structure of the piece, and “wortes” although still sometimes referred to in modern English, would not translate to a modern audience.

In the performance of this carol there are quite a few difficulties. I decided to be non-dogmatic about the modernisation of the text, and it presents some difficulties, not least pronunciation. The main difficulty is in whether to use modern words (trod), (shield) (health) or to preserve the rhyme and approximate early pronunciation, which is complicated without the help of an expert.

Similarly, although the notes seem straight forward, when In Sound Company community choir performed it there were some definite points of difficulty which I did not forsee (although they did a fantastic job).

If you’d interested in purchasing a copy of Jankyn at the Angnus then please contact me via the Contact Page.