“Song of the Wise Men” (trad., arr. Bullard b.1947)

This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of our parish magazine.

“Song of the Wise Men” is a Puerto Rican traditional folk carol. I think I discovered it two Christmases ago at St Margaret’s and fell in love with it.

Strictly speaking of course, carols about the magi should be reserved for epiphany, and this one is a beautiful alternative to the timeless traditional “We three Kings”:

  • From a far off land we come to find a new king,
  • Following a star with light so brightly gleaming.

 

  • O glistening star that heralds a new dawning,
  • O beauteous light from heaven so brightly gleaming!
  • Glory to the Son: we celebrate his birth,
  • Glory in the heavens and peace to all on earth.

 

  • My gift is gold for Jesus Christ so holy,
  • To affirm for us his power and his glory.

 

  • Frankincense, my gift so fragrantly delighting,
  • Telling of our prayers for ever upwards rising.

 

  • My gift is myrrh, so precious yet so bitter,
  • To declare to us the pain that he will suffer.

 

  • O glistening star that heralds a new dawning,
  • O beauteous light from heaven so brightly gleaming!
  • Glory to the Son: we celebrate his birth,
  • Glory in the heavens and peace to all on earth.

With the exception of the kings’ solo verses, this carol is sung almost entirely in minor thirds, and despite having Latin American roots, it has quite an eastern lilt to it too. The carol reaches it’s climax in the final repeat of the chorus, where the harmonising lower voice takes the tune and the sopranos soar above with a beautiful descant.

Meanwhile in the better known “We Three Kings”, the key verse for me is that of Balthazar:

  • Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
  • Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
  • Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
  • Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

At a time of such unrestrained celebration, Balthazar foresees the Easter story and the selfless sacrifice of our Lord. Given the choice, his is the verse I always prefer to sing. I am not always given the choice though, nor am I always offered a solo verse, and rightly so. It is a privilege to sing with such a talented group of musicians as that at St Margaret’s, many of whom are soloist standard. Naturally, everyone needs their chance to shine, and when it is my turn to have a moment in the sun then yes, selfishly, I do enjoy my solos. It is truly wonderful to be able to offer back to God the gift that it took me so long to discover I had.

That said, choral singing is just amazing, and context is key. During personal practices at home and choir rehearsals in church, there is the process of working hard to get it ‘right’ on so many levels – in tune, in time, in harmony, words in the right place, all singing together as one collective voice. There is deep synergy to choral singing as so much more can be achieved than by a solo voice singing alone. Musically speaking, this is very satisfying, and I usually leave choir practices energised: socially, musically and spiritually. Very often, I find that the music takes a further leap when performed during a service. Anthems usually follow the liturgical teaching of the readings and sermon. More than once my breath has been quite literally taken away (while singing!) simply by that context: the relevance of the words, their meaning, and the setting in which we sing.

Here is a recording of The SJA Singers performing “Song of the Wise Men“.

Incidentally, if you are puzzled by the difference between hymns, carols and anthems, then  this may help:

  • Hymns are generally taken from psalms, are theologically accurate are used in collective, public, congregational worship
  • Carols are seasonal, festive, and celebratory (they also used to be danced to!)
  • Anthems take their text from scripture or liturgy and are music for worship; the music is usually complex and may require trained singers

Carol P

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