The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Carol of the Bells

Words & Music: Peter J. Wilhousky, 1936,
Adapted from "Shchedryk" by Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych (1877-1921), 1916

Sheet Music: Carol of the Bells

See A Garritan Community Christmas for an MP3:
Carol Of The Bells, Jonathon Cox

In 1916, Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych was commissioned by director Oleksander Koshetz to create song based on local folk melodies. In response, Leontovych created his choral work "Shchedryk," pairing a folk song and a separate four-note folk tune. It was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916.1 According to Judith Otten, it's full title was "Shtchedrik, shtchedrik, shtchevatchka."

A winter "luck song," the lyrics tells a story of a swallow flying into a household to sing of wealth that will come with the following spring according to Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student who studied the song's history. The song is an adaptation of an old shchedrivka, a song traditionally sung on New Year's Eve (January 13th), expressing the hope for good fortune in the year to come.2 "The swallow is a herald of spring coming," Potoczniak said, adding that it was usually sung by adolescent girls going house to house in celebration of the new year. As the girls sang the tune predicting good fortune, they were rewarded with baked goods or other treats. "Shchedryk" is said to mean "bountiful" or "generous one."

Occasionally, the carol is referred to as the "Russian Carol." Nothing could be further from the truth. Leontovych was born and raised in the Ukraine, and much of his work was based on traditional Ukrainian folk music. Hence, the correct alternate title of this song should be the "Ukrainian Carol." It is often subtitled "The Ukrainian Bell Carol," and is frequently recorded under the title "Shtchedrik (A Christmas Carol)."

There is a charming old Slavic legend that at midnight, when Jesus was born, all the bells on earth started to ring of their own accord. It's been written that this legend was brought to life when, just 20 years after the composition of "Shchedryk," composer, lyricist and conductor Peter J. Wilhousky adapted Leontovych's music, and added new English lyrics (unrelated in theme to the original). This version has become a staple of the holiday repertoire; it's catchy tune was, at one time, employed in a series of TV advertisements for champagne, according to William Studwell. The "Earthly Delights" website noted that Wilhousky was of Czech background, and grew up singing in Russian-American choirs; in addition, he made many translations and arrangements of Slavic music.

When performed, "Carol of the Bells" usually begins quietly, and grows louder and louder as each voice is added, and at the end fades to a pianissimo.

At least three other Christmas songs have also been based on Leontovych's original work. Two are noted below (versions 2 and 3). I have been unable to locate the lyrics to the fourth, "Come, Dance and Sing" (anonymous, 1957).

Notes:

1. Different articles in Wikipedia give the year was 1916 or 1919.  Another source, The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, gives 1916. Return

2. Different articles in Wikipedia give January 13th as either New Year's Eve or the Eve of Epiphany. Most sources favor New Year's Eve. Return

Versions:

In addition, a number of arrangements have been made.

Sources:

'Carol of the Bells' Wasn't Originally A Christmas Song. Science Blog.  (Accessed December 14, 2006).

"Carol of the Bells." Answers.com. ("This entry is from Wikipedia...."; Accessed December 14, 2006).

Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols (Accessed December 14, 2006).

"Lyr Req: Carol of the Bells (Shchedrik)," thread from the Mudcat Cafe. Note that some links broken. Accessed December 14, 2006.

"Mykola Leontovych." Answers.com. ("This entry is from Wikipedia...."; Accessed December 14, 2006).

"Oleksander Koshetz." Answers.com. ("This entry is from Wikipedia...."; Accessed December 14, 2006). Other sources give the spelling as Koshyts.

"Shchedryk," at Answers.com. ("This entry is from Wikipedia...."; Accessed December 14, 2006).

"Shchedryk," at Wikipedia. This site has the Ukrainian lyrics, with a translation. (Accessed December 14, 2006).

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.

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