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Simon Mayor & Hilary James Drag Middle English Round Firmly into 21st Century

Aug 29, 2021

Reading in Berkshire, 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?!

The accompanying video to Sumer Is Icumen In was an obvious opportunity to highlight more of Hilary James’ other passion of drawing, a skill largely neglected since her degree in fine art, but which now featured on the album sleeve.  . 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).  She currently divides her time equally between music and art and looks forward to a busy, post-lockdown period of concerts with Simon, a renowned multi-instrumentalist, raconteur, and possessor of the driest wit. Simon 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 are a riot of humorous anecdotes and off-the-cuff humour alongside dazzling musicianship.

‘A witty and captivating mix of folk, blues, swing and classical showstoppers, spiced with a unique brand of off-beat humour.’ – The Guardian

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