FolkWorld #76 11/2021
© Pat Tynan Media

The manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In was discovered in Reading Abbey, founded by King Henry I in 1121 and once one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries. The document dates from around 1261 and is the earliest known example of secular, polyphonic music. As this track is released (June 2021) Reading celebrates the 900th anniversary of the founding of its Abbey. The ruined remains were recently made safe and renovated by Reading Council, creating ‘The Abbey Quarter’, now the town’s main heritage destination.

Journeying Back to the Roots

English folk, settings of English poetry and original instrumentals, songs and poetry, spiced with a little Tchaikovsky and JC Bach. When Summer Comes Again is an album of both reflection and optimistic anticipation.

Simon Mayor & Hilary James

Artist Video Simon Mayor @ FROG
Hilary James @ FROG

Lockdown might have been a time of few physical journeys, but for Simon Mayor & Hilary James, free of concert commitments, it was a chance to journey back to their roots and revisit favourite songs and tunes, as well as to write new material.

For Simon, it was a time to rosin up the bow with a passion. His treasured 1740 violin (yes, it’s that old!) had long played, err... second fiddle (sorry!) to his international reputation as a mandolinist, but, as a diversion from his Russian studies, he’d been inspired to teach himself both instruments (the two don’t look related but they're tuned identically) in his late teenage years. Here, the violin is heard on intricate arrangements of the traditional songs Sumer Is Icumen In and Lovely Joan, on his own swing-tinged composition Jerry & Tom, but perhaps most strikingly on The Buttermere Waltz, a frequently requested mandolin piece on gigs, now heard on violin for the first time. 

Simon Mayor & Hilary James
Track Listing: We wouldn’t be here’ | Sumer Is Icumen In (trad) | When Summer Comes Again | The Buttermere Waltz | The Stick / The Middlesmoor Waltz | Jockey to the Fair (trad) | Jerry and Tom | Lovely Joan (trad) | Barcarole (P Tchaikovsky) | Al Mio Bene (J C Bach) | The Kissing Gate & The Strawberry Tree | Linden Lea (Words: Wm Barnes)

Artist Audio Simon Mayor & Hilary James "When Summer Comes Again", Acoustics Records, 2021

But there’s no shortage of mandolin too, or its big sisters the mandola and mandocello. All three feature on the starkly beautiful arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Barcarole, and on the original tunes The Kissing Gate & The Strawberry Tree, written for the Classical Mandolin Society of America’s annual convention 2020 held ‘in the clouds'.  For Hilary, revisiting the title track When Summer Comes Again, a song she wrote and recorded some thirty years ago, seemed an appropriately optimistic way to hail the emergence from lockdown. It’s re-recorded here with her sister Janet Giraudo's harmony vocals arriving from France courtesy of cyberspace! For all her reputation as a singer, it’s a little ironic that Hilary’s unusual taste in bass instruments attracts as much attention. Her mandobass (bass mandolin) was made by luthier Robin Greenwood in Bournemouth; she found it selling second-hand quite by chance just a week before the duo started their mandolin quartet The Mandolinquents. It’s become something of a calling card ever since, although she plays double bass on the album too.

No surprise that traditional songs, Hilary’s first passion, feature too. There’s also an excursion into Italianate opera in JC Bach’s Al Mio Bene, and a live recording of the duo’s own setting of William Barnes’ beautiful poem Linden Lea. Oh, and on the subject of poetry, Simon makes his spoken word debut with his own The Stick  (possibly the only poem about a stick).

Reading in Berkshire, England is a modest, down-to-earth sort of place; it doesn’t readily boast about its treasures but tucks them away. Even the townsfolk are largely unaware of its Museum Of English Rural Life, or the painstakingly accurate reproduction of The Bayeux Tapestry hiding upstairs in the main museum. Or even Reading University, nestling in parkland to the south of the town centre. But in 1121 when King Henry I built Reading Abbey, the unmissable building would have defined the town. Henry VIII eventually brought it to ruins, but at the time Reading could boast one of the longest churches in England, and one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries. 

It was here that the music for this wonderful song Sumer Is Icumen In was discovered. The manuscript dates from 1261 and is the first known example of secular, polyphonic (harmonised) music. With lyrics in middle English, it is written as a continuous round for four to six unaccompanied voices. An anthem to joy and a jubilant celebration of summer, it now lands firmly in the 21st century in this new arrangement by Simon Mayor and Hilary James. The original vocal parts are retained - of course! - but the mandolin, violin and penny whistle lead a small orchestra of acoustic instruments through new instrumental sections in various keys, weaving a complex tapestry of sound until the voices reprise and fade into the Abbey’s once mighty acoustic.

Sumer Is Icumen In is released as Reading celebrates the 900th anniversary of the founding of its Abbey. The ruined remains, a beautifully evocative monument, were recently made safe and renovated by Reading Council, creating ‘The Abbey Quarter’, now the town’s main heritage destination. King Henry I is known to have been buried before the High Altar, now thought to lie ignominiously beneath the car park of neighbouring Reading Gaol. But given the discovery of Richard III in a similar place in Leicester, who knows what new surprises Reading Abbey may have in store?

Hilary James

A renowned multi-instrumentalist, raconteur, and possessor of the driest wit, Simon Mayor is best known as an internationally renowned virtuoso of the mandolin with a host of acclaimed albums featuring the instrument. His first post-lockdown concert was performing Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto with The London Mozart Players.  His live performances as a duo with Hilary James are a riot of humorous anecdotes and off-the-cuff wit alongside dazzling musicianship. His songwriting credits include a recent eight week TV ad for The Simpsons.  He’s also a poet, with his first volume intriguingly titled Of Death And A Banana Skin published in 2018. Reading and its Abbey feature heavily in the book, which includes both a sonnet to the ruins alongside Autumn Is Icumen In, a fond parody of its most famous song. 

Simon Mayor

Lockdown has proved productive. Apart from ‘Sumer’ and the forthcoming album, the empty date sheet endured by all musicians was replaced by just a few online concerts, including a guest appearance for The Classical Mandolin Society of America Conference 2020. But it also lent an opportunity for more time in the recording studio. Other albums ready for release include his guitar and mandolin arrangements of the music of Ireland’s most celebrated baroque composer Turlough O’Carolan, and a ‘words and music’ anthology taken from live recordings: anecdotes, poetry and of course some dazzling mandolin playing. His friendship and collaboration with the renowned luthier Mike Vanden has led to the construction of a specially made family of mandolin instruments in various sizes (mandolin, mandola and mandocello), all of which feature on the recording of Sumer Is Icumen In.

Blessed with the most velvety, quintessentially ‘English’ voice, Hilary has recorded and collaborated on a canon of over twenty albums, including eight of folk song. Her love of traditional music coupled with a fascination with the history of her adopted home town, made the recording of Sumer Is Icumen In something of an inevitability. An invitation to promote folk music concerts at Reading’s Museum Of English Rural Life had led to her 2011 album English Sketches, a mix of traditional song and settings of English poetry. It was also, as the title hints, inspiration to revive her other passion of drawing, a skill largely neglected since her degree in fine art, but which now featured on the album sleeve. 

The accompanying video to Sumer Is Icumen In an obvious opportunity to highlight more of her drawings. With the acquisition of an iPad, a long held interest in animation became possible, allowing both still and moving images to feature. The opening scene, a rural idyll, draws back through the arch of the Abbey Gate where ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ was first imagined all those centuries ago. A series of sketched dancers follows, and a time-lapsed revelation of another rural scene before the eye is led back through the arch as the music fades. 

Hilary plays guitar, double bass and a collection of unusual bass instruments including the mighty mandobass (bass mandolin). Lockdown was an opportunity to learn yet another (Oh no! Not the banjo?). She currently divides her time equally between music and art and looks forward to a busy, post-lockdown period of concerts with Simon and a return to hosting workshops in both singing and iPad animation.

Photo Credits: (1)-(4) Hilary James & Simon Mayor (unknown/website).

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