Today’s carol is sometimes described as sounding like medieval or Middle Eastern music, or that it’s “exotic.” But here is where the music teacher in me shakes her head and says that these designations are simply not knowing how or why the music doesn’t sound “normal.” Much of our western music now is organized on certain patterns of notes or scales, and the two most common scales are major and minor. At a basic level major scales or modes are described as sounding happy and minor as sad.
But “We Three Kings” shakes it up and uses both major and minor modes. Listen closely–the verse is minor, and the refrain is major. Here’s the opening verse in minor:
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
And here’s the refrain in major:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
The carol was written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., a Renaissance man of sorts, who considered being a lawyer, worked for a while as a journalist, and then went into the ministry and was a deacon and music teacher who also worked as an illustrator and designer. From 1850-1857 he was the first music teacher at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Chelsea in New York City, and he may have written “We Three Kings” for a pageant at the seminary in 1857. But other sources say the carol was for his nieces and nephews at the family’s home celebration in Vermont.
In either case, it was very well-liked by its initial audience prompting Hopkins to print it five years later (and perhaps sooner) in Hymns, Carols, and Songs. The collection was popular enough that it was reprinted a few different times, and you can see the 1863 printing here, if you like.
This carol has probably helped solidify the non-Biblical convention of having three wise men who were kings, and it perpetuates the tradition of their names as Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar. Hopkins wrote three verses, the first and last to be sung all together, but each individual verse to be sung by one of the three kings as a solo. The Kings College Cambridge setting linked above follows this convention although several modern arrangements do not. Incidentally, I met the first soloist, a tenor, last month when I sang at a masterclass by Tenebrae, a fantastic group of singers from England led by Nigel Short, formerly of the King’s Singers. I highly recommend you check them out. The tenor’s name is, I think, Robbie, and he’s very friendly and nice. It was a pleasant surprise to scroll through possible versions, have him pop up, and realize, “Hey! I know him!”
The Claymation Christmas Special also follows the soloist/chorus arrangement of the song, but it is special. Why? Because camels.
Day 8, 2014
Day 8, 2013
Day 8, 2012