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The Kings and I

Blog | By ASH Smyth | Dec 12, 2017

Christmas isn't necessarily The Most Wonderful Time of the Year if you're a singer – as I sometimes am.

That festive jollity is tough to maintain throughout the weeks of sleet and darkness; some vile colleague always gets you with their lurgy; and songs about farmyard animals do start to pall a little quicker than you might have thought. But if there's one thing I look forward to each year it's Peter Cornelius's The Three Kings.

Carl August Peter Cornelius (1824-74) was born on Christmas Eve, and The Three Kings – I crib from Alexandra Coghlan's Carols from King's – began life as a solo piece (Die Könige), in his Weihnachtslieder song cycle. The text was written by the man himself.

At the urging of Franz Liszt, Cornelius accompanied his rich, cellistic melody with the Lutheran chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, first on piano, then for voices – a Victorian example of the mash-up.

The version we have was first popularised in the 1920s, arranged by Ivor Atkins, translation by HN Bate, now found in the ubiquitous 'Green Book'.

And it is beautiful. Innately sacred (instead of 'Christmassy'), loving, comprehensible, the two tunes rise and fall around each other, like the Magi on their camels among the sand dunes of a Christmas card, reaching a warm but unbombastic peak before they die away, into the candlelit, hushed atmosphere of a mid-sized English church in winter. The last words, quietly enjoining, 'Offer thy heart...'

No bongos, no donkeys, no 'cheeky' sampling of recent pop hits… Not only is The Three Kings a proper bit of music, with a marked restraint in terms of Yuletide schmaltz, it's an annual opportunity for someone who sings well in his native English.

As Coghlan points out, it's a crooner's number. And for a medium-low, male voice, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the greater solos in the choral repertoire.

Imagine, then, my misery that I have never sung it.

When I was a kid, at All Saints, Maidstone, there was a chap, David, who wasn't even in the choir. But he had such a gorgeous voice – a proper baritone, like being towelled with silk – that year in, year out, he just turned up for the Cornelius. I thought this was a great idea. Until, of course, I made it to the back row, and started fancying that solo for myself.

Just when it looked like I was good enough – approaching eighteen, applying for choral scholarships – a fresh-faced chap called Oliver joined school (The Judd, in Tonbridge), where, it was well understood, I thought, all bass solos would be mine by right. The head of music promptly gave this one to Oliver, perhaps by way of teaching me a lesson. We're still friends, Oliver and I. And yes, he has a lovely voice – but that is quite beside the point.

I wasn't an Oxford choral scholar long enough to recall being robbed of this particular gig. Maybe my mate Dan did it, after the choir and I had parted company. But I do know I came home one 'Michaelmas' in time to watch my younger brother – Jacob, no less – sing 'my' solo from the same stalls Oliver had occupied just four years previously. (I was very proud of him. Through gritted teeth.)

King's College London was packed with soon-to-be Radio 3 Young Artists or whatever; so I was never going to get a look-in. At Hampton Court, likewise, they had a chap called Martin who spent his holidays at Bayreuth... in the damn chorus.

A friend remembers us performing it in Knightsbridge, though, around that time. What I remember is some charming barrister just strolling in from work and revealing he was also a quite excellent bass-baritone. (NB Nobody ever sings The Three Kings badly. At least there'd be some schadenfreude in that!)

The Christmas Badger Singers (yes) have definitely done it several times. My dear friend Nick loves to conduct and then turn round and rock the solo verses. And it's – ahem – his choir, so...

Nick's also responsible for the time we did the piece at Southwark, for alumni of St Andrews University. I looked on as the new beau of my ex-girlfriend sang the solo. Thank heavens we were getting paid.

I remember, once, I even sang it in Sri Lanka – in an empty concrete classroom, alone, while waiting for the choir to turn up. It's an odd feeling trying to suppress a lump in your throat at 7.30 on a tropical December morning with the sounds of hectic traffic and the growing heat already pouring through the louvres. In the cathedral, two of the schoolkids did it. Their duet was very good; but let's just say two adult semi-pros on backing vox was probably the wrong way round.

Last Saturday, some old collegiate pals and I went down to Smarden, Kent, to do some fundraising. I suggested we might sing Cornelius's The Three Kings... Christmas, apparently, is not about me.

But I'm not bitter. And for all that, it remains my favourite carol. So here's a video of yet another person singing it who isn't me. Just better, obviously.

ASH Smyth, @ASH_Smyth