The most famous of all the English rounds, Sumer is Icumen In forms part of a manuscript found at Reading Abbey, and is the earliest surviving example of a round. Written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English, Sumer is Icumen In is the oldest composition written for six voices, and although the composer cannot be positively identified, Sumer is Icumen In was most likely written by W. de Wycombe, an English composer of the thirteenth century, who composed many four-part polyphonic Alleluias that are similar in compositional style to Sumer is Icumen in. (A round is a composition in which a melody is sung by one person, and then a second person starts the melody a few measures later, and then a third begins, and so on. Popular examples of rounds include “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Frere Jacques.”)
Sumer is Icumen In is a four-part polyphonic composition with a two-part pes, or unchanging melody (the “ground) in a completely separate, but simultaneous, canon. Although written for four parts, it can successfully be sung as a round with more persons (up to twelve parts may be sung in the top melody), each part beginning after the preceding part has sung the opening phrase, “Sumer is icumen in.” The round is far more complex than many rounds, both structurally (for the pes) and musically, because the melody is more intricate than many rounds.
This song deserves its special and beloved place in music history for popularizing the round, or canon, which inspired many thousands of compositions (the first printed book of rounds was published by Thomas Ravencroft in 1609, and includes an older version of “Three Blind Mice”), from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, to many thousands of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, and countless Baroque composers. With the formation of the Second Viennese school, interest in the canon was revived.
In this video, we hear first one person singing the melody all the way through (with the two-part pes); the second iteration has two people singing the melody (with the two-part pes); and the third (and final) iteration is in four parts (plus the two-part pes). With twelve people singing the melody, the song becomes extremely dense and to hear the song properly with twelve parts, Sumer is Icumen In is usually sung twice all the way through.