Conductus ad tabulam: Orientis Partibus – Song of the Ass

Orientis partibus is a playful hymn addressed to an ass. It comes from a liturgy for the Feast of the Circumcision, which was later known as the Feast of Fools, from the Church of Sens in France in the 1200s.(MS. 46 of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Sens)It was sung in numerous medieval Christmastide pageants which featured the ass who bore Our Lady to Egypt; however, in this version, an additional stanza makes it clear it is addressed to the ass who bore the magi to Bethlehem. It is presumed that the layfolk sang the refrain, Hez, sir Asne, hez; the only words in the vernacular in this liturgy.

The music can be rhythmically interpreted in 4 or in 3. 

Here are the lyrics with an English translation:

1) Orientis partibus          
adventavit asinus
pulcher et fortissimus 
sarcinis aptissimus
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez!

In eastern lands 
the ass arrived
pretty and so strong
fit for burden
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

2) Hic in collibus Sychen
iam nutritus sub Ruben
transiit per Jordanem
saliit in Bethlehem
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez! 

Here in the hills of Sychen,
already suckled below the Ruben,
he crosses the Jordan;
he enters Bethlehem.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

3) Saltu vincit hinnulos
damas et capreolos
super dromedarios
velox madianeos
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez!

In his leaps he conquers the mules,
the fallow deer and roebucks
and surpasses the fast
camels of the Medes.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail! 

4) Aurum de Arabia, 
Thus et myrrham de Sabba 
Tulit in ecclesia 
Virtus asinaria.
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez!

Gold from Arabia,
Incense and myrrh from Sabba,
bore to the church
this virtuous ass.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

5) Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez!

While he pulls carts,
many with heavy loads,
his jaws
grind tough fodder.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

6) Cum aristis, hordeum
comedit et carduum
triticum ex palea
segregat in area
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez.

He eats barley, beards and all,
and spiny thistles.
He separates the wheat from the chaff
on the threshing floor.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

7) Amen dicas, asine
Iam satur ex gramine
amen, amen itera
aspernare vetera
Hez, Sir Asne, Hez.

You say “amen”, ass,
all filled with grass
“amen, amen” once again,
spurning the past.
Hail, Sir Ass, Hail!

Sheet music with both rhythmic interpretations:

This version alternates between the rhythmic interpretations

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Book recommendation: Sing We Now Merrily

Sing We Now Merrily: A Collection of Elizabethan Rounds from Ravenscroft selected and edited by Edward Bolkovac is an excellent collection of over 75 Thomas Ravenscroft rounds in modern notation. This is a great resource for reenactors, for those interested in musical history, or those that like rounds. There are also good notes and indices by topic, by tonality, by number of parts, and by range. All of this at a reasonable price – currently about $15 new on Amazon. It is also available from Hal Leonard, the distributer, and other sellers.

Originally I thought that the book did not cite which Ravenscroft book each round comes from. However, this information is available in the “Alphabetical List of Rounds” at the end of the book. This is not where I would expect to find it, but at least it is included in Sing We Now Merrily.

The copy I received also has some unevenness in the darkness of the ink on some of the pages.

Otherwise, Sing We Now Merrily is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it.

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Deuteromelia 1: “As it fell on a holy day” or the ballad of John Dory

Song: As it fell on a holy day (the ballad of John Dory)

From : Deuteromelia, or, the Second Part of Musicks melodie, or melodius Musicke, of Pleasant Roundelaies; K. H. mirth, or Freemens Songs, and such delightfull Catches

Composer (or transcriber) Thomas Ravenscroft

Published 1609

As it fell on a holy day“, the first song of Thomas Ravenscroft‘s Deuteromelia, is unusual because it is a round that tells a story, in this case the ballad of John Dory. Ravenscroft placed this song in the Freemans Songs of 3 Voices section, which is made up of 3 part songs – not rounds. Normally a round would not be a good ballad vehicle, but this 3 part round is set up so that all three parts line up on the same words every 3rd iteration of the tune. More on that later.

This song, or some version thereof, persisted long enough for the lyrics to be collected by Child in his famous 19thcentury collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Here is a summary of the song’s story. Note that although it is referred to as “The Ballad of John Dory,” John Dory is the villain, not the hero. On a holy day, John Dory, likely a pirate captain, mounts a horse and sets out for Paris. There he meets King John of France. He offers to bring the King captive Englishmen in return for a pardon. On the sea, John Dory encounters a ship captained by Nicholl of Cornwall. Nicholl takes John Dory prisoner after a sea battle in which sails are hoisted, cannons plied, and trumpets brayed.

The king mentioned might be John II of France (1319-1364) who was known as “John the Good” and reigned from 1350 – 1364.

The tune itself is fairly simple and repetitive, with the one twist that there is a lead section which is never repeated.

Original and Melody

Here is the original notation from Deuteromelia:

original notation

The melody sounds like this:  melody   or in a lower key:  lower melody

Here is what it sounds like in canon:  canon   or in lower canon: lower canon

Word Patterns and how it lines up

Now how do the words line up when singing in canon? Here is the word pattern for the first verse:

  1. As it fell on a holy day,
  2. As it fell on a holy day,
  3.    rest   rest     holy day;
  4. And upon a holy tide-a,
  5.          upon a holy tide-a,
  6.    rest    rest          tide-a;
  7. John Dory bought him an ambling Nag,
  8. John Dory bought him an ambling Nag,
  9.     rest                 rest            ambling Nag;
  10. To Paris for to ride-a.
  11. To Paris for to ride-a,
  12.   rest     rest      ride-a.

There is lots of repetition so that when voice one gets to line 3, voice two is on line 2, and voice three is on line 1 all singing the same words. Similarly when voice one is on line 6, voice two is on line 5, and voice three is on line 4.  These are the times the words align. Other times at least one voice is singing different words from the others.

Here is a modern transcription of the canon written out for the first verse:

first verse canon written out

first verse canon in a lower key

For another explanation, see here, under 3a. the Ravenscroft Ballads.

Transcriptions and Singing

You may notice that there are many verses. Sometimes the notes must be subdivided in order to fit all the words into the verse pattern. The transcription with all the verses is somewhat speculative in terms of how the words are distributed. In general I have tried to put the words where they fall when singing the piece, but you may do it differently. 

A modern transcription with all the verses

A modern transcription with verses in a lower key

For actual singing, it is probably easier to learn the melody and just look at the words while singing. The melody pattern is fairly easy, and trying to read the words and music together can get messy with so many verses. Most people pick up the tune quite quickly and then it is a matter of trying to fit the words in reasonably.

Just the words

Although it is somewhat complicated to explain, the round is really quite easy to learn and fun to sing! How often do you get to sing about a sea battle?

Other notes:

The text of “As if fell on a holy day” is also found in Child’s Ballads, number 284, or The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child, John Dory, number 284.

There is a reference to John Dory  in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle (written 1607); Act II, scene iv, line 35 reads, “Would I had gone to Paris with John Dory.”

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Links updated

Just a note that the links on the pages have been updated and should work now. Sorry for any inconvenience.

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Another Spring Carol: In Vernali Tempore

There is one more spring song in the Piae Cantiones (1582). in the section “De Tempore Vernali Cantiones”. Here is my transcription:

In Vernali Tempore – 2 page version

In Vernali Tempore – 1 page version

Here is the tune.

This tune was also adapted into a Christmas carol by John Mason Neale, O’re the Hill and O’re the Vale,  though I don’t believe it is as well known as the  Good King Wenceslas tune. Again, the 16th century Latin words are for Spring. I think the tune of In vernali tempore is quite lovely.

A translation of the first 2 verses is available here.

A rhyming metrical translation by Sir James Steuart Wilson is also available here.

Here is a performance of In Vernali Tempore by Joculatores Upsalienses with some added  instrumental interludes:

Source: George Ratcliffe Woodward, Piae Cantiones: A Collection of Church & School Song, chiefly Ancient Swedish, originally published in A.D. 1582 by Theodoric Petri of Hyland. (London: Chiswick Press for the Plainsong & Medieval Music Society, 1910).

Third verse is on the next page of this version.
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Pammelia 2: O My Fearful Dreams

Fortunately for music historians and re-creationists, Thomas Ravenscroft collected and published the street, folk, and drinking music of his day – mostly the late 1500s. Many of the rounds Ravenscroft collected are still popular today in some form.

Since today is Easter, I offer the second round in Ravenscroft’s collection Pammelia(1609), “O My Fearful Dreams”. This is a beautifully haunting round suitable to it’s text:

O my fearful dreams never forget shall I,

methought I heard a maiden[‘s] child condemned to die,

whose name was Jesus.

The original text does say “malden child” – probably a misprint. I believe “maiden’s child” was intended with its reference to the virgin Mary, but “maiden child” would fit the music as well.

This is a round of three voices, meaning it has three parts, at the unison, meaning each part starts on the same note. Generally “at the unison” also means at the octave, so parts can be transposed down or up an octave in order to fit the range of the singer or instrument.

I am using a publish format where the lines of the round music stack up in the way that they are related in performance. When voice 1 gets to the beginning of the second line (2), voice 2 should enter at the beginning of the piece. When voice 1 gets to the beginning of the third line (3) voice 3 should enter at the beginning.

Here is my modern transcription:

O My Fearful Dreams

This is what it sounds like – the round is played through once in its entirety, then all voices are added.

O My Fearful Dreams

Ravenscroft music requires some interpretation when making a modern transcription; some pieces more than others. Luckily, facsimiles of the Ravenscroft publications, including the page with this round, exist online at this wonderful web site. So you can create your own interpretation if you are so inclined.

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A Spring Carol: Tempus Adest Floridum

It’s finally spring, so here is a transcription of a spring carol:

Tempus Adest Floridum

from the Piae Cantiones (1582).


Most of you are familiar with the tune – it is used in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas which is a 19th century adaptation.The 16th century Latin words are for Spring.

Here is a lively performance of Tempus Adest Floridum:

 So don’t save this useful tune just for winter use!

This Wikipedia article also gives the earlier, earthier Carmina Burana words.

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