Reading's Sumer Is Icumen In recorded by The Futureheads

Original manuscript for Sumer Is Icumen In
Image caption The mid-13th Century summer canon is housed in the British Library

A medieval madrigal believed to be the oldest song in the English language will be enjoying a revival from the unlikeliest of sources.

Sumer Is Icumen In was written in Middle English at Reading Abbey, Berkshire, around 1260.

But it will undergo a 21st Century renaissance when Sunderland post-punk band The Futureheads feature the song on their forthcoming a cappella album.

"We've accepted we might put the cat among the pigeons with our fan base a little bit," said guitarist and vocalist Ross Millard.

"But you can't try and make an album that is a balance of contemporary stuff and heritage music without looking towards something like Sumer Is Icumen In".

The band, which sings the song in the Middle English dialect, said they first came across it while watching cult 1973 horror film The Wickerman, when the madrigal is sung during the infamous human sacrifice scene at the end.

But while the song is given a pagan overtone in that film, its lyrics are notable for being both sacred and secular - heralding in the summer with the song of the cuckoo.

The lyrics - translated from Middle English - include: "Summer has come in.

"Loud sing cuckoo.

"Ewe bleateth after lamb.

Image caption The Futureheads release their album in April

"Loweth after calf cow."

The song is also known as a "round" - a song for multiple voices entering in turn, producing a polyphonic harmony.

The manuscript, housed in the British Library, is the oldest known canonical music in Britain and believed to be the first round of its kind.

"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, an expert on the song from Reading University.

"It's so early, there is nothing similar in terms of composition."

'Enormous fun'

A stone plaque within the Abbey ruins in Reading commemorates the song, and it has been recorded by traditional choirs on a few film soundtracks and by medieval madrigal groups.

The idea of a post-punk band picking up the mantle was described by Jill Greenaway from Reading Museum as "enormous fun".

"Let's bring things up to the 21st Century," she added.

"If you have a modern punk band harking back to the 13th Century I think that's absolutely wonderful".

Millard said the band chose the track to form part of their vocals-only album, Rant, "because we wanted to add something different to the record".

He added: "The fact that it's a round is a challenge for us, it'll be interesting when we perform it live.

"It's the only song in the set where we do split off quite like that."

Sumer Is Icumen In will form part of the band's album, which includes a cappella versions of some of their past tracks as well as modern covers and traditional British folk songs.

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