For SATB choir and Organ. In German. Arranged from the lied - Opus 56, No. 6, published in 1906. This extended piece is fairly easy for the chorus, moderately difficult for the organ, but with a tremendous payoff. A wonderful surprise (and something totally different) for a Lessons and Carols service.
The poet Heine was Jewish by birth but converted to Christianity in 1825 when he was 28. The text for Strauss’s song is a simple telling of the Three Kings following the star, and entering the house. Unlike the author of Away in a Manger, Heine eschews the idea of Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. Instead the oxen low and the baby cries before the Kings go on their way singing.
Strauss’s setting is regarded by many critics as one of the finest of his songs but it does present a problem. The composer first wrote the song with orchestral accompaniment and only later condensed the score for piano. The rich orchestral sonorities are not heard to best advantage in the reduced version, but by arranging the accompaniment for organ, at least a flavour of the original can be maintained and a further opportunity given for a wider audience to hear one of the great masterpieces of Romantic writing.
The song itself falls into three sections: first a low and sombre introduction which Del Mar says describes “the initial aimless wanderings of the three holy men of the East before the golden star guides their steps.” The setting of the text is simple and pictorial: the star, the lowing of the oxen and the crying of the baby are depicted with Strauss’s usual skill, but they are overtaken by the melodic surge as the Kings sing on their journey homeward. There is a surprisingly long coda which continues long after the singing has stopped, and is in Strauss’s richest and most sonorous C major.
The three holy kings from the east
Asked in every little town:
Where is the way to Bethlehem,
Dear boys and girls?
Neither young nor old knew,
So the kings sought further;
They followed a golden star
That shone lovely and joyous.
The star stood still over Joseph’s house.
And there they entered;
The little ox bellowed, the little child cried,
The three holy kings sang.