Beloved Christmas carols: Carol of the Bells

Christmas carolsPeter Wilhousky, a distinguished American choral conductor, music educator, and arranger, wrote the words to “Carol of the Bells” and published his arrangement of the piece in 1936. The tune has a much longer history. It was originally a Ukrainian folksong. And it had nothing to do with Christmas.

In 1916, a Ukrainian choral director named Oleksander Koshetz commissioned local composer Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych to provide a new choral piece based on folk music.

Leontovych looked through an anthology of Ukrainian folk music and selected a four-note tune with lyrics to a song of well-wishing, traditionally sung at New Year’s. The text, which appears to have originated in pre-Christian days, describes a swallow, a herald of the coming of spring, proclaiming to the master of the house the wealth he will possess in the coming year. He called his piece “Schedryk,” from a Ukrainian word meaning “bountiful.”

It was a time of great political and social upheaval in Ukraine. It had long been part of Russia, but in the closing years of the First World War, Ukraine declared its independence and established a republic, which was soon reunited with Russia as part of the Soviet Union.

In 1919, in response to a government mandate, Koshetz formed the Ukrainian National Chorus and took it on a world-wide tour. Leontovych’s “Schedryk” was part of its repertoire. They sang it and the rest of the program in Carnegie Hall in New York to a sold out audience in 1921.

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English version

Wilhousky eventually heard the piece. Although born in New Jersey, he had a Czech heritage and sang in Russian-American choirs. His choral works include many arrangements of Slavic music. Sometimes he translated the original words, but not for “Schedryk.”

The song reminded Wilhousky of bells. According to a Slavic legend, all the bells on earth began to ring on their own to announce Jesus’ birth. So he wrote new words based on Christmas bells. He published “Carol of the Bells” in 1936. At the time, the US had no reciprocal copyright treaty with the Soviet Union, so he was able to copyright both his new words and the old choral piece.

Soon enough, other choral groups besides Wilhousky’s own began to perform and record “Carol of the Bells,” including Fred Waring, Roger Wagner, and Phil Spitalny. No wonder it has become one of the most frequently performed and recorded choral pieces at Christmas in the US. In the Ukraine, however, it’s still “Schedryk.” It’s still a New Year song, completely inappropriate for Christmas!

Recordings exist not only for chorus, but jazz arrangements , soul arrangements—quite a variety. Interested in exploring? Enjoy checking out the different selections offered by these vendors:

ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

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Sources: ‘Carol of the Bells’ wasn’t originally a Christmas song
Carol of the Bells
Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978)
The Ukrainian National Republic and the struggle for independence, 1917-1920
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Keith Laverack.

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