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Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Thursday, 31 December 2009
Sumer Is Icumen In at Abbey ruins
By Jenny Minard
BBC Berkshire Reporter

The manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In is held at the British Library

It has been in legendary films and is the oldest song in history - Sumer Is Icumen In was written at Reading Abbey.

The round, translated as Summer Has Come In, is sometimes known as the Reading Rota and is the oldest six-part polyphonic music and dates from 1240.

The actual manuscript is now in the British Library but there is a tablet of stone in the ruins at Reading Abbey.

The composer is anonymous but is thought to be W. De Wycombe, a precentor in Hereforshire.

The medieval song had a part in a number of films and even a children's television programme.

It was used at the climax of The Wicker Man in 1973, in a mixed translation by Peter Shaffer.

The round sung by the mice in the 1974 British Children's TV Show Bagpuss.

It was also used twice in 1982. Firstly in the animated film The Flight of the Dragons and secondly in Woody Allen's 1982 A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

The song was used in the 1993 film Shawdowlands and it was sung by actress Glenn Close in 1991 in television movie Sarah, Plain and Tall.

It is sung by four tenor voices in canon and two bass voices sing the pes, or ground, also in canon. The secular text is in Wessex dialect.

Reading Phoenix Choir
Reading Phoenix Choir sing Sumer is Icumen In on Monday, 4 January

On Monday, 4 January, 21 members of Reading Phoenix Choir will take to the grounds of the Abbey Ruins at Forbury Gardens in Reading to sing the song.

The choir will take part in a live broadcast for BBC Radio Berkshire as part of the Music Map of Berkshire project.

Musical importance

"It's important in musical history because at the time the Church was singing in Latin, the Royal Courts in French and this is the first piece of English music," said Barbara Morris who wrote a book with Phillipa Hardman from Reading University about the song.

"It's so early, there is nothing similar in terms of composition. There is much debate about it and nobody really knows when it originated but people say around 1250. There is no absolute agreement."

Abbey History

Reading Abbey was founded in 1121 by Henry I and you can still see the ruins in Forbury Gardens.

Not only is the Abbey an important landmark of Reading today, but back in medieval England it was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the country, so it changed the shape of the town.

The Church was similar in size to Westminster Abbey or St Paul's Cathedral and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John the evangelist.

Sadly in 1539 the Abbey fell prey to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and was used as a stone quarry, so most of the original construction stones have gone.

Henry I

Reading Abbey was one of the biggest in the country. Henry I who reigned 1100 to 1135 ordered it to be built and he is buried there.

For the monarchy, things did not turn out as Henry had planned. He wanted his daughter Matilda to succeed him but, when he died, Matilda was living in Normandy and was pregnant.

Her cousin Stephen took the throne instead which then started long Civil War.

It was at this time that the castle, probably wooden, was built in the grounds of Reading Abbey. After three years of fighting, Matilda won at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 where King Stephen was captured. Matilda returned to Normandy and her son eventually became King as Henry II.

The castle in the Abbey grounds was destroyed in 1153, possibly by order of Henry II.

Forbury Gardens are the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey. Once ranked as the third richest in all England, it was dissolved by Henry VIII and turned into a palace, but was destroyed during the English Civil Wars.

The Sumer Is Icumen In tablet is located in the Chapter House and there is a memorial stone to mark the grave of Henry I.

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