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Adam lay ybounden

(15th century English anonymous)

The manuscript of the text of this song (Sloane MS 2593) is now held in the British Library and thought to have been written c1400 as one of several on the same page.  The other entries include two riddle songs and the lyric poem “I syng of a mayden”.  It is thought that the dialect of the text,  analysed by K.R. Palti in 2008, places it in Norfolk in England within East Anglia’s song tradition and that the author was possibly a wandering minstrel.

The text, originally titled “Adam lay i-bowndyn”  tells of the medieval thought that Adam remained in limbo from his death until Jesus Christ was crucified as related in Genesis, Chapter 3.  The second verse of the text tells of the Fall of Adam after he was tempted by Eve and the serpent and the third verse ends on a positive note and talks of the redemption of man after the birth of Jesus Christ and how Mary becomes the Queen of Heaven.

No music survives that went with the text so many choral settings and interpretations of it have since been made for the song, often being performed at Christmas services.  Some of the composers that have put settings to it include Benjamin Britten, who entitled the work Deo Gracias, John Ireland, Philip Ledger and Peter Warlock along with Giles Swayne who was commissioned for a new setting by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

Perhaps the best known setting of the work is by the organist and choirmaster Boris Ord, who wrote his version in 1957, which is now traditionally performed after the First Lesson at King’s College, Cambridge’s annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

The song has been recorded by many artists and ensembles that include The Cambridge Singers and City of London Sinfonia, Faun, King’s College Choir, Cambridge, Arturo Delmoni, New College Choir, St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir and  The Sixteen along with numerous others.

Cambridge Singers recordings
Collegium 106 (CD: Christmas Night. Carols of The Nativity)
Conductor/ArrangerJohn Rutter
MusicBoris Ord