The favorite Christmas song, Carol of the Bells, is based on a Ukrainian folk song that originally had nothing to do with Christmas and was, in fact, popular in pre-Christian Ukraine.
How did this folk song become such a popular American Christmas carol, and what was its journey from a Ukrainian folk song to a modern choral favorite?
For a 1919 Christmas concert, Ukrainian choral conductor, arranger, composer, writer, musicologist, and lecturer Oleksander Koshyts commissioned a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies and created a national chorus to sing it.
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych accepted the commission and adapted an old folk song into “Shchedryk,” which he premiered in Kyiv in December 1916. The Ukrainian word shchedryj means “bountiful.” Leontovych was a prodigious choral conductor, composer, and teacher. Born in 1877 to a religious family in southwestern Ukraine, he completed seminary theological studies. He produced over 150 other classic works for choirs all over Ukraine and Russia.
Ukrainian New Year folk song
The original song was a New Year‘s song, sung in (old calendar) April in pre-Christian Ukraine. Only after Orthodox Christianity came to Ukraine in the 9th and 10 centuries did the calendar change to the Julian Calendar, and the date of the New Year moved to January 13-14 (of our Gregorian Calendar) hence became associated with the Feast of Epiphany.
The folk song, known as “The Little Swallow,” ushered in the New Year of Spring by describing a swallow swooping into a house and calling out the master to herald a bountiful new year, asking him to look at his livestock and what the coming Spring will bring, including a beautiful dark-eyebrowed wife.
Ukrainian National Chorus Tour of the West
In March 1917, the Russian Romanov dynasty, which had ruled part of Ukraine, fell. For a short time, an independent Ukrainian state was declared in 1918. See my articles: History of Ukraine.
Symon Petliura, the Ukrainian president, realized the value of promoting Ukrainian culture, language, and music worldwide to gain support for the new state. Under Alexander Koshetz‘s leadership, Ukraine sent out a choir of fifty men and women first to Prague, Czechoslovakia, on May 11, 1919.
Then the choir went to ten European countries over three years, then to North and South America. But Shchedryk was the standout “hit” from their repertoire. It was universally loved.
“Schedryk is one of the most beautiful songs of the program.” — Punch Magazine
“A masterpiece of folk art.” — Le XX Siecle (The 20th Century) — Brussels newspaper
“Ukraine’s cultural maturity must legitimize its political independence for the world.” — Vienna press
Shchedryk in New York City
On October 5, 1922, the Ukrainian Republican Kapelle choir, on their first stop in the US, debuted the song at a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert in New York City.
“a marvel of technical skill.” — New York Tribune
“a profound unanimity of feeling that aroused genuine emotion among the listeners.” — New York Herald
“simply spontaneous in origin and artistically harmonized.” — New York Times
Even so, the New York Times confused their origin as from “Little” (or Southern) Russia, and the choir corrected the reporters. They visited 36 US states and 115 cities.
Few at the New York concert would know that a year earlier, the song’s writer Leontovych had been assassinated by the Bolshevik secret police, which later became the KGB. Russia declared Ukraine part of the Soviet Union two months later, in December 1922. Petliura was killed in the middle of a Paris street on May 25, 1926.
American influence on Carol of the Bells
In 1936, over a decade after it debuted in the US, American composer Peter Wilhousky, who had Ukrainian roots, wrote English lyrics to the Ukrainian song with an explicit Christmas theme and gave it the name “Carol of the Bells.”
He copyrighted his new lyrics, and because he was director of music in New York City schools and broadcasted it on NBC Radio, the song became immensely popular. Demand for the sheet music soared.
Carol of the Bells: music and lyrics
The song used an ostinato 4-note repeating pattern that is as recognizable as the opening to Beethoven‘s 5th Symphony.
Hark, how the bells
Sweet, silver bells
All seem to say
“Throw cares away”
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold…
Occurrences of the Song in Popular Culture
- Used in the 1973 André sparkling wine Christmas ad, with glasses clinking like bells.
- Featured in a scene in the 1990 film Home Alone
- Used in a 2012 NBA ad
- Shown on a 2013 episode of The Simpsons
- Featured in a 2017 Audi Christmas ad
Carol of the Bells Today
Over 100 years after it first came to America, two nights ago at a concert at Carnegie Hall hosted by Martin Scorsese and Ukrainian-American actress Vera Farmiga, the Ukrainian Children’s choir presented Shchedryk along with the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York and the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America, who sang Christmas songs and contemporary Ukrainian choral works.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian