‘The Chorister’s Lament’ (14th Century)
"Full of care I cower unbecomingly in the cloister. I look at and listen to my lesson like a lazy fellow. The singing of the C-sol-fa causes me to sigh deeply, and to sit stammering on a song a month or more.
I go howling about like a cuckoo. Many is the sorrowful song my book sings. I am so hard pressed that I scarcely dare to look (at anything except my book). For God I forsook all the mirth of this earth.
I howl at my gradual, and roar like a rook. Little knew I of these things when I became a monk. Some notes are short and some a long angle; some are bent every which way like a meat-hook.
When I know my lesson I'm in the habit of going to my master, who hears my rendition for me. He thinks I've done nobly, you may be sure! (He says:) 'What have you done, Dan Walter, since Saturday noon? You don't hold a note, by God, in right pitch!
Alas, dear Walter, you do a wretched job! You stumble and stick fast as if you were lame. You don't intone each note by its proper name. You bite B-natural in half; for B-flat I rebuke you.
Woe to you, Walter dear, you do a dreadful job! You begin to clink and drone like an old kettle. You fail to touch the notes; you bite them all to pieces. Leave off for shame! You flatten all of them!'
Then is Walter so sad that he's ready to burst a blood-vessel, and he goes to William, and bids him God speed. 'God knows,' says William, 'I need your good will. Now I know how Judicare was set in the creed.
I'm as sorrowful as the bee that buzzes (half-drowned) in the well. I hammer away at the Psalms until my tongue falters. I have repeated no lesson since Palm Sunday. Is there as great sorrow in song as in psalm-chant?'
'Yes, by God, you read it off and it's none the better for it. I sol-fa and sing afterwards, and never come the nearer to the right tune. I hurl at the notes and heave them off their hinges. Everyone who hears me thinks that I err.
I knew nothing of either B-flat or of B-natural when I went out of this world and began my music-lessons. Before that I knew nothing of F-fa-ut and E-la-mi. I completely fail with fa; it muddies my whole journey.
And there are still other notes, sol and ut and la - and that obstinate rascal, that men call fa, he often pleases me ill, and makes me very sad. I can never hit him to take him in correct pitch.
There is also a streinant with two long tails, for which our master has often played ninepins with my head. Little can you know what sorrow ails me. It is but a child's game that you play with the Psalms.
When each note leaps to the other and wars on it, we call that a moyson, in G-sol-re-ut en haut. You wish you'd never been born when you sing off pitch. Then our master says, 'Que vous rien ne vaut!'"
"Un-comly in cloystre . i coure ful of care
I loke as a lurdeyn . and listne til my lare
the song of the cesolfa . dos me syken sare
and sitte stotiand on a song . a moneth and mare
I ga gowlende a-bowte . also dos a goke
Mani is the sorwfol song . it singge vpon mi bok.
I am holde so harde . vn-nethes dar i loke
al the mirthe of this mold . for god i for-soke
I gowle on mi grayel . and Rore als a Roke
Listel wiste i ther-of . qwan I therto toke
Summe notes arn shorte . and somme a long noke
Somme kroken a-weyward . als a fleshoke.
Qwan i kan mi lesson . mi Meyster wil i gon.
that heres me mi rendre . he wenes i haue wel don.
'Qwat has thu don dawn Water . sin saterdai at non.
thu holdest nowt a note by god in riht ton.
Wayme leue Water . thu werkes al til shame
thu stomblest and stikes fast . as thu were lame
thu tones nowt the note . ilke be his name
thu bitist a-son-der bequarre . for bemol i the blame
Wey the leue Water . thu werkes al to wondre
als an old cawdrun . bigynnest to clondre
thu tuchest nowt the notes . thu bites hem on-sonder
Hold vp for shame . thu letes hem al under'
thanne is Water so wo . that wol ner wil he blede
and wendis him til William . and bit him wel to spede
'god it wot' seys William . 'ther-of haddi nede
now wot i qwou Judicare . was set in the crede
Me is wo so is the be . that belles in the walmes
I donke vp-on dauid . til me tonge talmes.
I ne rendrede nowt . sithen men beren palmes
Is it also mikel sorwe . in song so is in salmes'
'ya bi god thu reddis and so it is wel werre
I solfe and singge after and is me neuere the nerre
I horle at the notes and heue hem al of herre
Alle that me heres wenes that i erre
Of bemol and of bequarre . of bothe i was wol bare
Qwan i wente out of this word and lifte til mi lare
Of effauz and elami ne coudy neuer are
I fayle faste in the fa it files al mi fare
Zet ther ben other notes sol and vt and la
and that froward file . that men clipis fa.
Often he dos me liken ille and werkes me ful wa.
Mizti him neuere hitten in ton for to ta.
Zet ther is a streinant witz to longe tailes
ther-fore has vre mayster . ofte horled mi kayles
ful litel thu kennes qwat sorwe me ayles
It is but childes game that thu witz dauid dayles.
Qwan ilke note til other lepes and makes hem a-sawt
that we calles a moyson . in gesolreutz en hawt.
il hayl were thu boren . zif thu make defawt.'
thanne sais oure mayster 'que vos ren ne vawt.'"
Translation and transcription from Francis Lee Utley, “The Choristers’ Lament”, Speculum 21, no. 2 (April 1946): 194–202.
"The Chorister’s Lament" is a poem found in MS. Arundel 292, most likely written between 1350-1390, providing a unique insight into the vernacular musical terminology of the period. The work presents three characters, the struggling student Dan Walter, William, and the unnamed French Choir Master. The difficulty Dan Walter experiences in learning to solmise is, I’m sure, one with which many of us attempting to work with historical solmisation can sympathise.
The image below is from Add. Ms. 39636 in the British Library, an Italian Gradual from the third quarter of the 15th century.