After the birth of Jesus in the stable, Matthew’s Gospel gives us the odd story of the visit of the Magi with their three strange gifts, celebrated in this colourful hymn. Here we are at the birth of a new kind of singing in church, with a clergyman of the mainline of the Church of England writing this, the first to be published of a sequence of hymns to be sung alongside the lessons for the Church’s year in The Book of Common Prayer. It took until after Heber’s untimely death as Bishop of Calcutta for his hymns to be published. But thereafter, and for the rest of the nineteenth century, a multitude of gifted writers followed him to provide all the churches with a new kind of English hymn. The rushing rhythm of the words (technically ‘dactylic’) carries us through a variety of imagery that is not always totally clear, nor biblical, but is always effective.
A number of older tunes have been proposed for these words, and a number of new ones written, but the popular choice has been ‘Epiphany Hymn’, rhythmically a little pedestrian, but certainly joyful, the work of a distinguished mid-nineteenth-century clergyman.
from notes by Alan Luff © 2002