The Three Kings (2004)

Carol for SATB a cappella   4 minutes

Dorothy L. Sayers’ poem The Three Kings was suggested to me as a carol text by Stephen Cleobury. Sayers achieves a surprising emotional power and mystery by portraying the youngest king, the nearest to childhood, as the saddest, bringing a gift of myrrh which anticipates Christ’s passion and death; it is the oldest king, nearest to the grave, who brings golden toys.  I have tried to catch this surprise in the music: the first two verses are simple and ballad like, while the third verse suddenly opens up like a treasure chest of twinkling gold.

The first king was very young,
O balow, balow la lay,
With doleful ballads on his tongue,
O balow, balow la lay,
He came bearing a branch of myrrh
Than which no gall is bitterer,
O balow, balow la lay,
Gifts for a baby King, O.

The second king was a man in prime,
O balow, balow la lay,
The solemn priest of a solemn time,
O balow, balow la lay,
With eyes downcast and reverent feet
He brought his incense sad and sweet,
O balow, balow la lay,
Gifts for a baby King, O.

The third king was very old,
O balow, balow la lay,
Both his hands were full of gold,
O balow, balow la lay,
Many a gaud and glittering toy,
Baubles brave for a baby boy,
O balow, balow la lay,
Gifts for a baby King, O.

Text: Dorothy L. Sayers

Commissioned by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge commemorating the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in December 2000

First performance: 24th December 2000, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, King's College, Cambridge.