Behind the Christmas Carol: Carol of the Bells
Carol of the Bells is another popular Christmas Carol, but actually began as a New Year’s song.
The song was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914. He was approached by the Conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir Oleksander Koshyts to create a song based on traditional Ukranian folk chants.
The original folk song was written in a pre-Christian Ukraine and associated with the coming New Year, which was celebrated in April with the coming of spring. Once Christianity was introduced in the Ukraine, the Julian calendar was adopted and the New Year moved to January.
The original Ukrainian title translates to “the generous one” and tells of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim a bountiful year for the family.
“The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir.”
The song was known as Shchedryk.
Shchedryk was first performed on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall by the Alexander Koshetz’s Ukrainian National Chorus.
Peter J. Wilhousky wrote the lyrics we now know as Carol of the Bells in 1936. He stated when he heard the arrangement he was reminded of bells. Wilhousky was an American choir director and arranger, but had Ukrainian heritage. His choirs began performing his arrangement which grew in popularity. His lyrics are still under copyright.
Wilhousky’s new lyrics and Christmas meaning turned the song into a Christmas Carol.
The Carol of the Bells has been recorded and presented by numerous performers. One popular rendition is by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
The song was used in the 1990 movie Home Alone.
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