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 yesterday’s Carol a Day about the Magi, the three distinguished foreigners who visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, having seen and followed a new star in the East. 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 actually 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, the son of a bishop. He had been a journalist and 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.
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 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.