Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings

we three kings“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier.

Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years.

The author and composer

John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891) was the son of an Episcopal priest who was later Bishop of Vermont. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Vermont intending to go on to law school, but then he felt the Holy Spirit’s prompting to go into the ministry instead. He graduated in 1850 from General Theological Seminary in New York City.

In 1855 he became the seminary’s first music teacher and served there for two years. He wrote the hymn “We Three Kings” in 1857, and it received its first performance at the Christmas pageant there.

It appears, however, that he didn’t have the seminary in mind as he wrote it. He traveled back to Vermont every Christmas and, being a bachelor, always prepared a surprise for his nieces and nephews. In 1857 it was his new hymn, which fit well with the family tradition of dramatizing the Christmas story.

Family and friends loved it immediately. Hopkins included it as “Three Kings of Orient” in a compilation of his music published in 1863 titled Carols, Hymns, and Songs, the first of several compilations that established him as a leading composer of hymns in the Episcopal church. Thirty of his hymns appear in various Episcopal  hymnals, but only “We Three Kings” is well known outside that denomination.

Hopkins went on to found and edit the Church Journal, illustrate books, create stained glass windows, participate in the New York Ecclesiastical Society, and after becoming a priest in 1872, serve as rector in two parishes.

The story

We three kings

The Three Magi (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) / Made at the Hohenburg Abbey, France, 1185 by its abbess Herrad of Landsberg (c.1130 – July 25, 1195)

The Bible tells the story of the coming of the magi from a distant land in Matthew 2. It does not call them kings or say how many there were, much less their names, but it’s easy to infer three magi (or kings) from the three gifts.

The gifts seem very strange choices for a baby, but they were prophetic.

  • Gold is a suitable gift for a king, and Jesus is king of kings.
  • Frankincense is suitable for a priest, and the risen Jesus became our high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
  • Before he could rise, he had to die, and the ancients used myrrh to prepare the dead for burial.

Besides being prophetic, these gifts were immediately practical. Shortly after the magi left Bethlehem, Herod sent soldiers to kill every baby boy two years old or younger. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt. All three gifts were compact and easy to carry. They were also expensive and easy to sell at need.

Jesus is God’s gift to humanity, and so Christmas has always been associated with gift giving. What can we give back to God? Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” has the answer: “give him my heart.”

The carol

“We Three Kings” is neither great poetry nor great music, but it is simple and effective. It has served its purpose of making the story come to life since that first pageant. It is the only popular Epiphany carol to specify three kings, but its focus is on the guidance of the star.

The tune is in triple meter, but unlike most other triple meter carols, it isn’t a dance. Instead its plodding pace captures the feel of a long journey.

Hopkins considered it a dramatic piece. He printed the first and last verses as a trio and assigned traditional names of the kings to each part. At the bottom of the first page, he wrote,

Each of verses, 2, 3, and 4, is sung as a solo to the music of Gaspard’s part to the 1st and 5th verses, the accompaniment and chorus being the same throughout. Only verses 1 and 5 are sung as a trio. Men’s voices are best for the parts of the Three Kings, but the music is set in the G clef for the accommodation of children.

The preface to Carols, Hymns, and Songs begins with an odd combination of generosity and a lawyerly warning:

Compilers of other Collections are at liberty to transfer any of the pieces in this little volume, provided they leave what they take unaltered. If any change be made in either words or music without my permission, I shall prosecute the offender to the extent of the law.

He would have to sue compilers of every hymnal I have ever seen. Not a one of them maintains his trio arrangement. He said nothing about instrumental arrangements. The thought may never have occurred to him.

I wonder what he would think about this arrangement by Robert Elkjer for four trombones? The meter is way off from the original. Many of the measures are missing a beat!

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