Carols of the Epiphany


The Solemnity of the Feast of the Epiphany is the first of seven solemnities of the Lord. It celebrates the revelation of God to all the world, that is to every single human being living on the earth. Therefore, it is a solemnity for all of us whether we follow any particular religion or spirituality.

The Magi were most likely wise men from Syria who made a special study of astrology. Due to this they were believed to have knowledge beyond that of humans. Later, they became portrayed as Kings. In the adoration of the Magi, the prophecies foretelling the honour which the people would give to the God of Israel were fulfilled. In the Magi, the Fathers of the Church saw in their gifts symbols of Christ's royalty Gold, Incense-divinity and Myrrh- Passion. The Feast of the Epiphany is the manifestation of the Son of God made man.

 The Magi however stayed focused on what they came to seek- they were guided by the star, which filled them with delight because it helped them find what they came to seek- Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger. They were able to do him homage and offer their gifts.  It is interesting to note the reaction of Herod who was governed by power and who

  • ·felt threatened at the possibility there may be another king (someone to threaten his job),

  • played the game pretending he wanted to worship also (sought out information about the threat and how he might overcome the enemy).

We too may wish to ask ourselves these reflective questions as we ponder this feast day.

1.       Who do we identify in this Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2.

2.        Are we like the crowd who were perturbed? 

3.       Do we become perturbed when we do not understand a new situation? 

4.       Is there a Herod in our personality? If so, what might we do about this aspect of our personality? 

5.       Are we like the 3 Kings, enquirers of the faith?

6.       Do we continue to enquire and deepen our faith? 

7.       What would Joseph and Mary have thought about their 3 kingly visitors to the manger?

I wonder what they thought about it all.  We do know that Mary pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart. What would the babe experience?

Christmastide is the period between Christmas Day to Epiphany and it ends on this Solemnity just as it started with a Solemnity.

If you wish to read more about the Solemnity of the Epiphany, its traditions and other interesting aspects search my Catholic Blog  


Music of Christmastide is varied as it includes both secular carols, songs and classical vocal or instrumental music as well as sacred carols also vocal or instrumental.  Many examples of each type come to mind such as Jingle Bells, White Christmas (Secular) or Silent Night, O Holy Night or Hallelujah chorus (from Messiah).

In music just like in many other areas of life, we categorise music into genres. A genre is a style or category of art, music, or literature. Music can be sacred or secular in style and/or vocal and instrumental. The term Christmas Carols is another type of genre subdivided by whether they are sacred or secular in nature.

 Three carols specific to this Solemnity of the Epiphany are:

1.    Three Kings of the Orient (We Three Kings).

2.    The First Nowell.

3.    O Holy Night.

Let us now explore more about these carols.


 We Three Kings" is known under a number of titles. Its original title was called "Three Kings of Orient", but it is also known as "We Three Kings of Orient Are" or "The Quest of the Magi".  This Christmas carol was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857.  It is based on Scripture from Matthew 2:1, which is the Gospel read on the Solemnity of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church. The Composer Hopkins was a rector for Pennsylvanian Episcopal Church and like many composers of music wrote the music because of a need.  Therefore, the composers would be surprised to know that their music lives on as they considered it to be functional fulfilling a purpose of the time. He wrote the carol for a Christmas Pageant. for the Seminary where he was teaching in New York.

Another example of a carol written because of a need was Silent Night by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in Salzburg, Austria. Yet, we have just celebrated 200 years since it was written.  

Why not click over to Pinterest and see the pins I have created for these carols.

Here are the links:

Three Kings of Orient:

Quest of the Magi (Kings of the Magi)

Silent Night:

Silent Night:

 I wish now to digress for a moment to both life and spiritual perspective.

From a life perspective, the question we need to ask ourselves I think at this point is what are we doing in our lives that will have impact on future generations. It is worth pondering this question I think as it gives us a perspective that our lives and what we do is worthwhile and although we may not see the impact it provides to other people, it does make a difference. We all make a difference by the way we are as people and what we do.

From a spiritual perspective this same concept is clearly articulated in Scripture:

“The life and death of each of us has its influence on others.”

Now, Kings of the Orient (We Three Kings or The Quest of the Magi) was written in 1857, but not published until 1863. It was intended for three male voices to sing one verse each as a solo to represent the three Kings and the corresponding gifts, whilst the first and last verse were to be sung as verses of praises. The refrain (also known as a chorus) praised the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.

 The original intentions of performance are not necessarily carried out nowadays, but if we remember that Hopkins did write this carol for a Christmas pageant, so the performance intentions make sense. Written in a minor key, it evokes a sad, melancholy Medieval style yet the change to the relative major key brightens the mood to correspond with the lyrics of the refrain. This change of key and mood also gives a sense of the journey of the Magi.

Many versions exist and the carol remains popular today.


"O Holy Night" ("Cantique de Noël") is a well-known Christmas carol with the music composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847.  In Roquemaure at the end of 1843, the church organ had recently been renovated. To celebrate the event, the Parish Priest asked wine merchant and poet,  Placide Cappeau, a  local of the town, to write a Christmas poem, and although  Cappeau had not  showed any interest in religion, he accommodated the Parish Priest. He wrote the beautiful  lyrics of the hymn, which reflects on the birth of Jesus and on humanity's redemption.

 Soon afterwards that same year, Adolphe Adam composed the music The carol was premiered in Roquemaure in 1847 by the opera singer Emily Laurey.  However, when his song received a negative reaction from French church authorities stating that it lacked musical taste, Adams and Cappeau renamed it as Cantique de Noel. It was translated into English lyrics in 1855.

The song has been recorded by numerous well-known popular-music, classical-music, and religious-music singers and is a favourite solo carol for Christmas Eve.

O Holy Night is also famous for being the first Christmas song ever played live over the radio. In 1906 Reginald Fessenden ( a former employee and lab technician for Thomas Edison) transmitted a short broadcast from the Brant Rock radio tower.


  • ·         Three verses with each verse being the same musically each with different words.

  • ·         The chorus is interwoven between the verses. The chorus repeat is written in full.
    It leads progressively through the carol to the climax (top G when sung in E flat Major or
    B flat if a descant soprano sings it).

  • ·         The light arpeggio type accompaniment keeps the movement of the line occurring,
    whilst the melody itself is long and sustained. and needs great breath control to sing


Want to find the lyrics of this Carol. Lyrics for this carol can be found at: 

You can also click on the following links to check out my Pinterest Pins on this carol.


There are a couple of versions of this carol in relation to the lyrics but in the version that I sing each Christmas and Epiphany, the lyrics of verse 2 are about the Magi.


Of all the carols and Christmas music I sing and play, this is indeed my favourite.
I love the movement of the arpeggio type harmony in the accompaniment whilst the singer and/or choir have the long-sustained melody.  Although it can be a challenge for both singer and accompanist alike, the spiritual satisfaction overriding the musical and professional aspects is overwhelming.

This carol can also be sung with a soloist and choir. There are some very moving harmonies in the choral parts whilst the soprano soloist has the main melody and soars over the top of the lower parts. As a chorister, it is always most enjoyable to sing with others, to feel the long-sustained melody line and to soar in spirit with the soprano soloist line.

EMOTIONAL CONNECTION: I have loved this Carol for a very long time and I used to rehearse it for my late parents.  Now that they have passed, this carol adds another layer of bonding to them.  I sing it each year with them in mind (although I have to be careful that my eyes and heart do not well up).  .


1. What emotional connection do you have with this carol?  Is it part of your personal journey?  If not, then what carol or Christmas music is part of your personal journey?

2. How does it help you reflect on the meaning of Christmas?

3.  How do different interpretations of the carol affect you? (e.g. hearing it in the shopping mall or a modern interpretation or an unusual harmony).

4.When you hear or sing this carol this Christmas, what will you carry forward in your heart about it?

There are many soloists who have recorded this carol. You may have your favourite recording.  If you do, great.. listen to that recording.

If not, you may wish to.

. O Holy Night. or

O Holy Night

3. THE FIRST NOWEL ( The First Noel).

Although the origin of the carol is considered unknown, it is usually considered English in origin, dated around 16th century. Some considered it to be a French Carol because of the spelling of Noel as compared to the old English spelling of Nowell. It is interesting to note that after the England were captured by the Saxons, some Norman French words were rewritten, hence the spelling Nowell. William Sandys first published it in 1833 in a collection of ‘’Christmas Carols, Ancient Modern’’.

If we think of the lyrics of the carol, there are 6 verses, but actually 5 out of the 6 verses relate to the scene of the Epiphany. It is also referred to as the Epiphany Carol because of the references to the Epiphany in most of the verses.

 Its melody consists of musical phrase repeated twice.  It is followed by a refrain which is a variation on that phrase.  All three phrases end on third of the scale.  Mostly, music are completed on the home note (home key)

Depending on the version used, there is also a descant (an additional vocal part above the main melody part) for the refrain. I hope my post is not categorised as descant in the literary sense of the word!! 

From a singer’s perspective, the descant part is a joy to sing as it moves mostly step wise (like a scale) to the highest note and climaxes there for one brief moment before winding its way down to the third note of the key.


 Now that Christmastide is over, look out for my new opt in free ebook which will be coming later this week on the Elements of Music.  Understanding these elements are important keys to listening and appreciating Music more fully.  It is a way to focus and then respond to the music through our emotions.

Signing up for my free ebook will also provide you with the great opportunity to be on my email list and be first to be updated on what is happening on and receive offers and special discounts when new courses are launched.  Added to that, you will be able to stay updated from my newsletter.
So stay tuned and remember to sign up to my email list and collect my ebook on Elements of Music later this week.


 Do you want to know more about Music?  Do you want to play a piece of music and do not know where to start?  Learning some basic Music Theory will start to unlock some fundamental keys to understanding and appreciating Music at a deeper level.  Are you ready to start your online Music Theory course?  You can find out more and enrol for Love Music Theory 1

NB: When you click on the link, you will be taken to where I host my courses.

I look forward to meeting you there when you enrol in Love Music Theory 1

 Although Christmastide is over, the sentiments of it should stay with us the whole year. We can play a part in that each day by the way we respond to each other and singing the carols in our hearts until Christmas Eve is upon us again.

May we encourage others during this week and throughout the year to have a Magi experience,

so that we may all say in in voice:

We have seen His star in the east and have come to adore the Lord.

 The star guided the 3 Wise Men from the East to Jesus and as both scripture and the carols say

'stopped right over the place where Jesus lay'. 


Feel free to share the link with friends, family, colleagues and on social media too. Let’s spread the word about it and

let’s love life and learn music.