Britten, New Year Carol
Thanks so much to everyone who responded to my request for information on the
Britten "New Year Carol." Below is a compilation of the responses. I hope
you all find it helpful. Its quite interesting.
This all has to do with the Yule Celebration in pagan rituals of the Welsh
tradition. I did a search on the line above (in Altavista) and this was one
of the websites that came up:
The Wheel of the
Year and Sabbat Rituals
Look for the Yule Celebration (or go to 'Find' and look for "fair maid" or
"gold upon her toe" or something like that...)
Many of you asked me to forward responses to my question about the symbolic
language in Britten's "A New Year's Carol," so I'll post this compilation
entire list. If you don't know the piece, it is an easy lyrical SSA
suitable for school or church choirs--a couple of you mentioned what a
anthem it makes for the low attendance Sunday after Christmas.
The responses I received have two points of view on the "levy dew" text:
first two treat it as a corruption of "levedy" ("lady") and the other two
I prefer) as a corruption of "Levez a Dieu" ("raise to God"). Apparently
meaning of the seven gold wires and the bugle has been lost to the ages.
> At some point in my past I found an article about this which I carefully
photocopied and kept, but unfortunately did not write down the source. I
think I found it at the Westminster Choir College library in a periodical
of some sort.
> This carol apparently is for the feast of the annunciation which is in
March. When English was becoming English the word for "lady" was something
like "levedey" (sp not correct, as I'm doing this from memory.) The north
of England retained the early version, while the south changed to "lady".
However in songs, the older "levedey" was retained but mutated into the
"levy dew" pronunciation.
I assume water and wine refer to the wedding feast where Jesus performed
miracle and the golden wires are a reference to the harp or lyre.. West
east door probably refer to the church (and thus sunrise & sunset) which
connect this text to the spring equinox which is close to the feast of the
Nonetheless, my choir is singing the piece on Jan. 10!
> Emily Crocker
> Director of Choral Publications
> Hal Leonard Corporation
> For days I've been meaning to reply to your post -- and I'm sure you've
> received much from the list.
> If not, though, I have a Xerox of a "Letter to the Editor" from the
> AGO's journal of a few years back that goes into great detail about A
> NEW YEAR CAROL. It's longish, so I'll wait to hear from you whether or
> not you still need it.
> The gist is "Levy dew" is a corruption of "Levedy" which was Middle
> English (at least in the north of England) for "Lady" -- referring back
> to the "Fair Maid" (to be interpreted as the Virgin Mary).
> Allen Crowell
> Westminster Choir College of Rider University
> Princeton, NJ 08540-3899
> This carol stems from an old custom of blessing the houses in a village
> for the new year - an unoffical blessing done by young peopel, in excahnge
> for a coin or two. (It died out in the 18th century, I believe.) Some of
> the phrases, such as the bugles and wires lines, have not had their
> meanings passed down to us. The levy dew is one that has: it is an
> anglicized version of the the French phrase, Levez a Dieu, if my spelling
> is correct, used for the elevation of the host at communion. Hence 'the
> water and the wine" relates to it.
> SO while levy dew has known symbolism, alas, the rest of that phrase does
> not anymore.
> You asked about the meaning of Britten's New Year Carol. He discovered the
> words in Walter de la Mare's anthology "Tom Tiddler's Ground". The precise
> meaning of the chorus seems to be long-lost in corrupted folklore, but a
> writer in "The Athenaeum" dated 5 Feb 1948 described a ritual he observed
> that children drew water early on New Year's Day and carrying it around in
> a jug, sprinkled it with a spray of evergreen upon all whom they met,
> wishing them a Happy New Year. They would also serenade householders with
> the song. The writer adds that it was sung in English and he recorded the
> words phonetically while speculating that "levy dew" might be "Levez Dieu",
> that the Fair Maid may be Aurora or the Virgin and, if the latter, whether
> "reign" ought to be "reine." Much of the rest of the chorus such as "the
> seven bright gold wires" remains obscure but is probably connected to
> traditional cabbalistic cumulative songs, such as "The Twelve Apostles"
> (which Britten also set): "seven the seven stars in the sky, six are the
> small belaters" etc., a variant of which is "Green grow the rushes-oh."
> If I may end with a shameless plug (which I hope is not breaking any toaboo
> on these pages, the original message haviong been passed to me by a
> friend): I have recorded the song with a really superb boy treble, together
> with Britten's "The Birds", "Corpus Christi carol", his arrangement of "O
> waly, waly" and much other English music, some recorded for the first time
> with a boy.
After writing my doctoral paper on Morten Lauridsen's settings of
Robert Graves poems, I think the reference is to the archetypal Goddess
figure, thought to be a young maiden at the turn of the year. I'm no
mythology scholar, but seems to me gold at the chin means sunrise, or
the dawn of a new year, and gold at the toe is sunset, or the end of an
Thanks again to all who contributed.
The Hartt School
University of Hartford