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We Three Kings
"We Three Kings", original title "Three Kings of Orient", also known as "We Three Kings of Orient Are" or "The Quest of the Magi", was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857. At the time he was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Although he originally worked as a journalist for a New York newspaper and studied to become a lawyer, he chose to join the clergy upon graduating from the University of Vermont. Hopkins studied at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and after graduating and being ordained a deacon in 1850, he became its first music teacher five years later, holding the post until 1857 alongside his ministry in the Episcopal Church.
During his final year of teaching at the seminary, Hopkins wrote "We Three Kings" for a Christmas pageant held at the college. It was noteworthy that Hopkins composed both the lyrics and music; contemporary carol composers usually wrote either the lyrics or music but not both. Originally titled "Three Kings of Orient", it was sung within his circle of family and friends. Because of the popularity it achieved among them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in 1863 in his book Carols, Hymns, and Songs. It was the first Christmas carol originating from the United States to achieve widespread popularity, as well as the first to be featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a "prestigious" and "influential" collection of carols that was published in the United Kingdom. In 1916, the carol was printed in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church; that year's edition was the first to have a separate section for Christmas songs. "We Three Kings" was also included in the Oxford Book of Carols published in 1928, which praised the song as "one of the most successful of modern composed carols."
The carol centers around the Biblical Magi, who visited Jesus as a child in a house (Matthew 2:11) sometime after his Nativity and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh while paying homage to him.
Hopkins organized the carol in such a way that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself in order to correspond with the three kings. The first and last verses of the carol are sung together by all three as "verses of praise", while the intermediate verses are sung individually with each king describing the gift he was bringing. The refrain proceeds to praise the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem. Nowadays, however, the Magi's solos are typically not observed when singing the carol.