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I Saw Three Ships


The origins of this Christmas Carol, sometimes known as “Christmas Day in the Morning” are sketchy in that a marked similarity to lines from a song from the 16th century are printed in the Introduction to Scottish Songs, Vol.1 by Joseph Ritson.  It has also been likened to the carol “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” and under the title “The Sunny Bank”, which is often printed as another version of this carol.  This version hails from either the English county of Warwickshire or Staffordshire, but it was also known in other counties throughout the length and breadth of England such as Kent and Gloucestershire.  There is another thought that the carol evolved in England during the 15th century from the legend where the relics belonging to the three wise men were shipped into Koln, Germany, in the 12th century.

It is known that the tune for the carol has changed over the years since its first recognised publication in 1666, but it still remains ever popular in today’s Christmas celebrations.  Many composers have used it in arrangements such as Leroy Anderson in his Suite of Carols for Brass Choir, David Overton in his “Fantasia on I Saw Three Ships”, and Sir Philip Ledger has arranged it to be sung at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

It has been sung on recordings by artists such as Sting, Barenaked Ladies and Jon Anderson and has appeared as in the 1935 movie version of David Copperfield.   On the television it has been heard on South Park, Weebl and Bob and an instrumental version in the style of Baroque was regularly heard on The Weather Channel over the holiday season.

Leroy Anderson and His Orchestra recordings
Decca B0003552-02 (CD: A Leroy Anderson Christmas)

Chicago Symphony Low Brass Ensemble recordings
VOX 7501 (CD: Christmas with the Symphony Brass of Chicago)
Conductor – Barry Faldner

Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge recordings
London 421 022 (CD: Christmas Weekend -16 Favourite Carols)
Conductor – George Guest
Organ – Stephen Cleobury

Clare College Singers and Orchestra recordings
EMI 7 69950 2 CD: Carols from Clare (rec. 1966)
Conductor – John Rutter

Robert DeCormier Singers and Ensemble recordings
Arabesque 6526 (A Victorian Christmas)
Conductor – Robert DeCormier

Kiri te Kanawa recordings
TELDEC 99000 (CD: Christmas with Kiri te Kanawa) 
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Choir of Lichfield Cathedral
The Choir of Coventry Cathedral
Conductor – R. Stapleton
Vocals – Kiri te Kanawa

Kings College Choir, Cambridge recordings
London 444 848 (CD: Noel – Christmas at Kings)
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks

Mannheim Steamroller recordings
American Gramaphone Records AG 1984 (CD: Christmas)

Robert Shaw Chorale recordings 
RCA 6429 – 2 – RG (CD: A Festival of Carols)
(Arrangers – Robert Shaw/Alice Parker)