Carol of the Bells: Back to the Origins

Culture & Science
17 December 2012, 13:02

Ukrainian Shchedryk, the generous one, has spread all over the world as a hugely popular Christmas tune, Carol of the Bells. Mykola Leontovych composed the choir arrangement used in all further versions, from pop to jazz, club and rock. Choir conductor and composer Aleksander Kozhets introduced Shchedryk to the USA and Canada. Meanwhile, Ukrainians hardly remember him because of Soviet historians who eliminated him from the 20th century Ukrainian music as a migrant traitor.        

Tracing back the history of the song that counts centuries is almost impossible today. It was born in the mysterious archaic layers of Ukrainian culture. The original lyrics that rhythmically repeat a swallow’s tender spring song had appeared in pre-Christian times when the language of nature served as the basis for human language. Back then, the ancient farmer ancestors of modern Ukrainians started their new year in spring – on the first day, March 1, or the day of spring equinox, March 21. That’s why archaic ritual songs portray emotional upheaval in spring and the joy of young nature’s beauty that birds are the first ones to herald. Another message of the song is the birth of a new life as the original lyrics mention a sheepfold with new-born lambs. This flows harmoniously into the Christian motif of the baby Jesus being born in a Bethlehem stable which was added to it later and become pivotal in modern times. The first four notes of the tune are all in a minor third, a musical interval that is among the most pleasant for the human ear and a basic interval for lullabies which are the first music a child hears.

Before it became popular worldwide, the song lived a modest life entertaining villagers in the Right-Bank Ukraine, especially Podillia and Volyn. In 1914, Mykola Leontovych created the best choir arrangement for it. On December 25, 1916, the student choir of St. Volodymyr University – currently Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv – conducted by Alexander Koshetz performed it for the first time on stage. That was the beginning of the brief recognition for Leontovych as one of the most talented Ukrainian composers until he was shot by an “authorized” Bolshevik agent on a festive winter day in January 1921. His biography suggests that a few days before his death Leontovych had been working on his next arrangement for a folk song about death. “Death is walking around my yard; It is getting closer to me slowly; Slowly and quietly it comes; Oh, my children, my flowers – don’t let her in; Don’t let me die,” were the lyrics.

In 1919, Shchedryk stepped on its triumphant path through Western Europe and across the Atlantic. Eventually, Peter Wilhousky – another immigrant from the East – wrote the English lyrics for it in 1936, turning it into the Carol of the Bells.  

Apart from Shchedryk, conductor Alexander Koshetz popularized many Ukrainian folk songs arranged by Leontovych. During the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), Koshetz was appointed head of the Ukrainian Republican Choir set up to promote Ukrainian music in the world. Supported by Symon Petliura, the choir went on a West European tour in 1919. After the UNR government was overthrown and the Bolsheviks came to power, Koshetz along with some choir singers decided to remain abroad. In 1922, they moved to the USA. For the next two decades, they performed successfully in the USA, Canada, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil while being based in New York and Winnipeg. Virko Baley, a renowned American-Ukrainian composer and conductor, as well as Alexis Kochan, a Ukrainian-Canadian singer and composer, once suggested that the tune of the old Ukrainian lullaby Oy Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon (The Dream Passes by the Windows) inspired George Gershwin’s Summertime.  Later, Shchedryk won over Hollywood in Chris Columbus’ comedy series Home Alone.

According to the English-language Wikipedia, over 150 version of Shchedryk had been written by 2004. 


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