Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Here’s the fifth entry in my hymn history co-blog with author and activist, Pam McAllister. We’re exploring the history of each of the hymns on Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns.
In this post, we look at the well-loved carol, “We Three Kings.” This is one of three arrangements on the album that were specifically written for instrumental jazz trio (the remaining ten of arrangements are meant for congregational singing). Sheet music for all 13 arrangements is available at my sheet music page.
We stand in our decorated sanctuaries to sing “WE THREE KINGS,” noting those last to arrive to the manger in Bethlehem.
Here they come and not a moment too soon. It’s almost time to take down the tree and decorations. The poinsettias are wilting, yet here they come, over moor and mountain. It has been a difficult, dusty journey with nothing but a star, faith, and prophecy for guidance. Yet, they come, seeking the child.
And they’ve brought gifts! We understand the GOLD. With actual gold, Joseph might have retired from carpentry or the hungry might have been fed. Most likely this gift of precious metal is symbolic, fit for the little Prince of Peace, the King of Kings.
And we understand FRANKINCENSE, the fragrant resinous dried sap harvested from Boswellia sacra trees and used since ancient times in religious ceremonies. We still use incense in some of our churches. Its smoke mingles with prayer and praise and lifts our earth-burdened thoughts to the heavens where the angels sing.
But the MYRRH! That’s another story. What kind of gift is this for a baby? “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
In a fiction writing workshop, the gift of myrrh would be considered “foreshadowing.” Used for anointing the dead and embalming corpses, myrrh brings an image of death into the humble manger of our imaginations. We want to look away, tell the Magi to take it back, but we can’t. We know the suffering that lies ahead for the holy child, “God and King and sacrifice.” Sacrifice! This carol, even with its glorious refrain about the star’s royal beauty bright, won’t let us forget it.
We are tempted to lock baby Jesus away in his manger until next year so that we won’t have to hear all his subversive talk about feeding the hungry and living as one with the poor, won’t have to endure the brutality and gut-wrenching grief of Good Friday.
But the kings have brought myrrh. We know what that means: Jesus has to grow up, and we have to let him.
DEANNA’S NOTES ON THE HYMN COMPOSER AND TUNE
John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), the Pittsburgh-born son of an Episcopal bishop, wrote both the text and tune to “Three Kings of Orient” or “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant at General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1857. He was the school’s first instructor in church music, 1855-57.
Later, Hopkins served as rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, PA (where Pam attended college!). A revered preacher, he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.
Rev. Hopkins was one of the leaders in the development of Episcopalian hymnody. His publication, Carols, Hymns, and Songs (1863) went through four editions and includes 14 carols (including “Three Kings of Orient”), 2 hymns, and 2 songs. The coolest thing is that you can view a digitized version of the whole book from the Princeton University Library, here. Hopkins’ other publications include Canticles Noted with Accompanying Harmonies (1866) and Poems by the Wayside (1883).
While we often think of secular holiday tunes (“Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph,” “White Christmas,” etc.) as being written by American composers, “We Three Kings” is a treasured part of the small, home-grown canon of sacred Christmas songs, African-American spirituals, and carols.
As is typical of many carols, “We Three Kings” has a refrain (“Star of wonder, star of night …”). Distinct from most carols, the song begins in a minor key (usually E minor) and shifts to its relative major (G major) at the refrain. This harmonic shift is also matched by a shift in the lyrics. While the verses focus on the kings’ journey and the gifts they bring, the refrain sings to the star, asking it to guide us to its perfect light.
TO GO DEEPER
New York Festival of Song “Song of the Day” — Deanna Witkowski: Kings of Orient
Sheet music sample of Deanna’s arrangement
Video of Deanna’s trio playing KINGS OF ORIENT (We Three Kings) from the new recording, Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns.
“History of Hymns — We Three Kings” by C. Michael Hawn, Discipleship Ministries website