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A carol a day: We Three Kings of Orient Are

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This was first published on December 18, 2018. 

THERE are several unusual aspects to We Three Kings of Orient Are. It was something of a one-hit wonder, as none of the writer’s other works had much success. It is the only carol I have come across so far in which the words and the melody were written by the same person. And it was apparently the first of a considerable number of carols originating in the United States to achieve popularity in Britain.

I gave some details in Tuesday’s Carol a Day about the Magi, the distinguished foreigners who visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, having seen and followed a new star in the East. (See this interesting piece in the Guardian two days ago.) https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/dec/15/how-to-watch-the-jupiter-and-saturn-great-conjunction-of-2020 The Bible translates the Greek word ‘magi’ as ‘wise men’, and does not say that they were royal. However prophecies in the Old Testament suggest that the Messiah would be visited by royalty, for example this verse from Psalm 72: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts’, and it has become an established tradition that they were kings. The Bible does not state that there were three of them, but again this has become tradition, presumably because three gifts are mentioned – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

We Three Kings was written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins Jr, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of a bishop. He started out as a journalist and then studied to become a lawyer, but decided to enter the clergy. Alongside his duties in the Episcopal Church, for a couple of years he was a music teacher at the General Theological Seminary in New York, and according to one account he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant there, originally under the title Three Kings of Orient. Others believe he wrote it as a Christmas present for his nephews and nieces.

He intended that three soloists would each sing a single verse to correspond with the kings and their gifts. The words of the third king are filled with foreboding as he presents the infant with myrrh, an anointing oil associated with funeral rites:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone cold tomb.

The tune, in a minor key, is melancholy.

Here are the complete words:

1 We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Gaspard:

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign. [Refrain]

Melchior:

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshipping God on high. [Refrain]

Balthazar:

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb. [Refrain]

5 Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies. [Refrain]

Hopkins published the carol in 1862. The Oxford Book of Carols of 1928 praised it as ‘one of the most successful of modern composed carols’. He wrote numerous other hymns and carols but none achieved anything like the same success.

He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S Grant in 1885, and died in New York in 1891, aged 71.

Here is a traditional performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

And for connoisseurs of the truly odd, here the Beach Boys have a go at it on their Christmas Album of 1964.

My remark about the Beach Boys’ version started a controversy. Tim Nicely-Thornogson wrote: ‘Margaret, there’s a rare error here: the Beach Boys never sang anything that can be described as “odd”.’

39 Pontiac Dream replied: ‘The Beach Boys version is terrible. I love the Beach Boys but this really wasn’t their finest few minutes.’

All the other other tracks on the album are jolly Christmas songs but it was a difficult year for the group, starting with the split from their tyrannical manager (and father of most of them) Murry Wilson, and the descent into mental illness of Brian Wilson, so maybe their choices were not the best.

This year’s new offering is by the Buck Brass Trio, formed in 2013 by graduates from the Royal Academy of Music.

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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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