Miri it is while sumer ilast with fugheles song, oc nu
neheth windes blast and weder strong. ei ei what this
niht is long. and ich with wel michel wrong, soregh and
murn and fast.
Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast
These lines are the lyrics to might be the earliest surviving secular English song, dating from the first half of 13th century (circa 1225 AD). Known as Mirie it is while sumer ilast (‘Merry it is while summer lasts’), the preservation of the song is quite fortuitous since it was composed on a paper that was kept inside an unrelated historical manuscript.
The manuscript in question here pertains to the Book of Psalms, originally written in Latin on parchment, dating from the latter half of 12th century AD. However after a few decades of its composition, an anonymous writer (probably not the original scribe) added a flyleaf – a blank page, at the beginning of the manuscript. This particular page contained handwritten compositions of two French songs, along with a verse (in Middle English) of what is now considered as the earliest surviving secular English song – Mirie it is while sumer ilast. This ‘rudimentary’ music has been recreated and performed on a medieval harp by Ian Pittaway. There is another version by Ensemble Belladonna (below).
Another famous specimen Sumer is icumen in (more widely known as the Cuckoo Song or Summer Canon), is also counted among the earliest surviving songs in English. Possibly composed circa 1260 AD, the song (also written in Middle English, Wessex dialect) is now given the distinction of being the oldest known piece of six-part polyphonic music in English. The following musical arrangement was performed by the Hilliard Ensemble.