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6 December 2019, 13:47 | Updated: 6 December 2019, 13:51
Its lilting rhythm and solemn minor key has ensured We Three Kings’ place as a distinctive and popular carol. But what are its origins and what are the lyrics?
‘We Three Kings’ (or ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’) is an Aeolian mode Christmas carol dating from 1857.
The carol was composed by American clergyman and hymnodist, John Henry Hopkins Jr. and appeared in his Carols, Hymns and Songs collection in 1872. Its original use was for an elaborate Nativity drama Hopkins was staging.
It’s intended as an Epiphany carol, meaning it’s technically meant to be sung towards the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Epiphany is 6 January in 2020). But with its great tune and message of hope, the popular carol – which was originally published as ‘Three Kings of Orient’ – is still one of the most frequently performed throughout the entire Christmas season, including before Christmas Day.
The carol tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection – and the melody alternates between regal, minor-sounding Aeolian mode verses, in which the Three Wise Men announce what gifts they’re presenting to the son of God, and a major chorus joyfully proclaiming the beauty of the star guiding their way to the manger.
We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies.