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A carol a day: Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar

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This was first published on December 24, 2018.

ON the principle of saving the best till last, this is my favourite carol by a long way.

I first encountered it when it was sung by the senior choir at my girls’ grammar school in about 1960, and I thought it was the most unbelievably beautiful thing I had ever heard. I still do.

I am not sure if it technically counts as a carol because it has two simultaneous melodies so can it really only be sung by a choir rather than a church congregation. But I am not going to let that get in the way.

Like earlier carols in this series, We Three Kings of Orient Are and I saw Three ShipsThree Kings from Persian Lands Afar describes the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. As we hear it today, it is the work of four men spanning 400 years. The background chorale Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) was written in 1597 by Philipp Nicolai, a German Lutheran pastor, poet and composer, apparently as a response to an outbreak of plague, or the Black Death, though research suggests the tune was at least 60 years old by then. The words are based on Psalm 45, a mystical wedding song. Nicolai is supposed to be the last example of the Meistersinger tradition, in which words and music are written by the same person.

In 1856 the German composer and writer Peter Cornelius wrote the hymn Die Könige (The Kings) for a vocal soloist set against a piano background of Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern. Cornelius mistakenly thought the chorale referred to the Star of Bethlehem, when it is an Advent hymn in which the Morning Star is an allegory for the arrival of Jesus. He rewrote it in 1870 for soloist and chorus.

The German words were translated into English in 1928 by the Rev Herbert Newell Bate (1871-1941). He was ordained in 1896, and was Dean of York from 1932 until his death nine years later.

At some stage after that, Worcester Cathedral’s organist Sir Ivor Atkins came across Cornelius’s Die Könige. (I say ‘at some stage’ because every website I have found says this happened in 1957, but Atkins died in 1953.)

Atkins, a friend and musical associate of Edward Elgar, is noted for his editing of the work known as Allegri’s Miserere, which is a composite of various early works. The famous ethereal top C is apparently an error in an earlier edition which Atkins copied into his version. (For an interesting account of the evolution of the piece, see here.)

In his masterly arrangement, Atkins gave Cornelius’s words and melody to a baritone soloist, while the Nicolai chorale How Brightly Shines the Morning Star is sung as a background by a four-part choir.

Here are the words, with the chorale words in italic:

1. Three Kings from Persian lands afar
To Jordan follow the pointing star:
And this the quest of the travellers three,
Where the new-born King of the Jews may be. 
Full royal gifts they bear for the King;
Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.

How brightly shines the morning star!
With grace and truth from heaven afar
Our Jesse tree now bloweth.

2. The star shines out with a steadfast ray;
The kings to Bethlehem make their way,
And there in worship they bend the knee,
As Mary’s child in her lap they see; 
Their royal gifts they show to the King; 
Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.

Of Jacob’s stem and David’s line,
For thee, my Bridegroom, King divine,
My soul with love o’erfloweth.

3. Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The Kings are travelling, travel with them! 
The star of mercy, the star of grace,
Shall lead thy heart to its resting place. 
Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring;
Offer thy heart to the infant King. 

Thy word, Jesu, Inly feeds us,
Rightly leads us, Life bestowing.
Praise, O praise such love o’erflowing

It is given every few years by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, either at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast live on radio on Christmas Eve afternoon, or Carols from King’s which is recorded earlier in December and goes out on TV, also on Christmas Eve. (I don’t know if it will be in today’s broadcasts.) I have chosen the performance from 2011.

The baritone soloist is Dan D’Souza, then a choral scholar, who has gone on to have a successful career as a professional singer. And here is a version by a girls’ choir, which must be like the first time I heard it. It may be a little wobbly in places but it still fills my heart with joy.

When this article was first published IwasGnarth commmented: ‘Though lovely in itself, there is an ineffable sadness about the girls’ choir. It feels like a lament for a culture and tradition now swiftly fading on this island.’

And that is exactly how I feel.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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