Music notes for January 3, 2021

A New Year Carol (anonymous Welsh text)

“Levy-Dew,” also known as “A New Year Carol,” is a British folk song of Welsh origin traditionally sung in New Year celebrations. It is associated with a New Year’s Day custom involving sprinkling people with water newly drawn from a well. The song was set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1934.  It became a Welsh custom that children would collect water from a well to sprinkle on the faces of passers-by while singing the carol during which they would also beg for food or money.

Washing everything at the end of the old year was a tradition many people took part in; like this they would purify the house and welcome in the new year.

The meaning of the words “levy-dew” in the original lyrics of the song is not certainly known. One line of speculation holds that the words represent the Welsh phrase llef y Dduw, “a cry to God.” Others connect it to Middle English levedy (“lady”), or to the French phrase levez à Dieu, “raise to God,” which may in turn refer to the elevation of the Host in Christian liturgy.

The chorus is about Holy Communion: “the water and the wine.” “The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine” may refer to the golden strings of the harp and the trumpets of heaven.  Verses 2 and 3 describe letting go of the old year and bringing in the new. The new year is welcomed through the east gate, like the rising sun, and the old year shooed from the west gate, the direction of the setting sun. “Sing reign of Fair Maid” may refer to folk mythology and golden maidens who represent the rising and setting of the sun and, therefore, the turning of seasons and years.


Music notes for September 27, 2020 by Music Director Andrew Shenton

The prelude and offertory this week are by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Born in 1935, Pärt has the distinction of being the most performed contemporary composer for the last several years, according to the website His music has appeared in several major movies, including Farenheit 911 and There will be Blood. Around 1976 he devised a new musical style which he called tintinnabulation (from the Latin for "sounding bells"). This style first appeared in the short piece Für Alina, which is this week’s prelude. Pärt, who is an Orthodox Christian, has composed a great deal of sacred music, ranging from short anthems to large-scale works for choir and orchestra. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer was composed in 2005 and is a simple yet elegant version for piano and voice. 

Music notes for September 20, 2020 

The prelude this week is the start of a carillon of bells from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before clocks were invented, time-standardized bells were essential to call people to worship. Sets of tuned bells were installed high in towers so the sound could be widely heard, and sophisticated mathematical sets of procedures were devised called "change ringing." 


A more recent invention is a "carillonneur" who plays a keyboard that activates the bells, making it easier to play tunes (often favorite hymns) on the bells. In many places (such as Park Street Church in Boston) these bells are now electronic and played through speakers in the tower!


In the UK (and elsewhere) ringing is done by hand, one person per bell. Each bell is numbered and the sequence in which the bells are rung changes according to named patterns that can be called out during the ringing process. Some of these patterns can take several hours to complete and require both strength and concentration. The diagram below gives you an example of how call changes can be devised using several common patterns, including Whittington and Queens.  More information is available in this wikipedia article.

Interesting fact: for funerals and solemn occasions the clapper of each bell can be half- or fully-covered with leather so that every (other) swing is muffled, making the sound less bright and less loud.


Music notes for August 30, 2020

I have decided to follow Jesus

Text compiled by Sundar Singh (1899-?)

Music based on an Indian Folk song      


According to P. Job, the lyrics are based on the last words of Nokseng, a Garo man, a tribe from Meghalaya (Assam) in India, who converted to Christianity in the middle of the 19th century through the efforts of an American Baptist missionary. He is said to have recited verses from John Chapter 12 as he and his family were killed for their unwavering belief. An alternative tradition attributes the hymn to Simon Marak, from Jorhat, Assam. The formation of these words into a hymn is attributed to the Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh. The melody is also Indian, and entitled “Assam” after the region where the text originated. An American hymn editor, William Jensen Reynolds, composed an arrangement which was included in the 1959 Assembly Songbook. His version became a regular feature of Billy Graham’s evangelistic meetings in America and elsewhere, spreading its popularity.

Music notes for August 23, 2020

Tu es petra                                                        Henri Mulet (1878–1967)

Henri Mulet was Organist at St-Roch, Paris, and Professor of Organ at l’École Niedermeyer. Tu es petra et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus te (‘You are the rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against you’) is the tenth and final piece in this collection, the title itself being a corruption of the Vulgate version of the words of Christ to St Peter in St Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, verse 18. Mulet described the piece, in its separately published form, as carillon, but it is more helpful to think of it as a fairly typical example of a French organ toccata, with scintillating figuration on the manuals accompanying sinister-sounding motifs given out by the pedals. (From notes by Relf Clark © 2004.)

Music notes for August 16, 2020

A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester                L. J. White​

Born to a noble family in the late 12th century, Richard of Chichester was educated at Oxford, and during a life worthy of canonization, was appointed Chancellor of Oxford University. Later becoming a priest, he lived a life of simple vegetarian frugality, and as Bishop of Chichester, Richard was instrumental in major reform to the manners and morals of his clergy.  Canonized in 1262, his shrine eventually became so popular that King Henry VIII ordered it destroyed. On his deathbed in 1253, Richard is believed to have uttered a prayer containing these words, some of which have been popularized in the song “Day By Day” from the Broadway musical “Godspell”:


O holy Jesus,

Most merciful redeemer, 

Friend and brother,

May I know thee more clearly,

Love thee more dearly,

And follow thee more nearly. Amen.

Music notes for July 26, 2020

This week there are two unusual music selections by British composers and writers. The prelude celebrates the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22) with a setting of an unusual and evocative poem by Henry Kingsley. The Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and was misattributed as a sinful woman due to early confusion between her and other women in the gospels. In 1969 Pope Paul VI officially corrected this, however, her sinful reputation persists and was certainly part of popular culture during the life of poet Henry Kingsley (1830-1876). In his poem Kingsley therefore puts Mary at the gate of heaven with no gift other than her sin. A blackbird, a Christian symbol for the darkness of sin, intercedes with Michael to let her in (and its song is beautifully shown in the organ accompaniment). Michael does not let her in, however, in the last verse, through an almighty and beautiful swell in the music, Jesus himself comes to open the gate and let her in to paradise.


According to Malene A. Little in the Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature, The memorable but mysterious Corpus Christi Carol is one of the best-known but most difficult of the late medieval English lyrics. Early carols like this one were not necessarily connected with any particular season, but were rather songs of joy, particularly of religious joy. The “Lully, lullay, lully, lullay . . .” refrain is the aspect of this poem that characterizes it technically as a “carol.” The earliest extant version of the lyric appears in the Balliol College MS 354, the commonplace book of Richard Hill compiled 1503–36. Hill was a London grocer who delighted in lists and riddles; thus the enigmatic carol’s appeal to him is obvious. The Corpus Christi Carol has been interpreted in numerous ways. Some believe it relates to the ancient fertility myth of “The Fisher King,” which was Christianized and modified in Arthurian literature as part of the Holy Grail legend. “The Fisher King” is the story of a man who is constantly dying and never reaches death, and his ultimate redemption by the Grail Knight—a redemption suggested in the final stanza, where the Eucharist, the celebration of Corpus Christi or the body of Christ, is suggestive of the Holy Grail. That the poem is a description of Holy Communion is suggested by the “hall/That was hanged with purpill and pall,” which signifies curtains around the altar. “And in that bed ther lythe a knight/ His woundes bleding day and night” could be the communion wafer bleeding from being dipped into the communion wine. The music by Benjamin Britten is taken from a larger suite of carols and arranged by the composer for voice and piano as a gently pulsed and plaintively evocative anthem that highlights the text throughout.


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