Friday, December 13, 2013


The Carol of the Bells wasn't  popular when I was growing up like it is now.  The Christmas songs we heard were the religious ones, like "Silent Night" and "O come All Ye Faithful" or the secular ones like "Jungle Bells" and "White Christmas".  Even "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" were new.  I knew about "Carol of the Bells", but it was one of those songs that you heard once in a while in a Christmas special on TV.  I also knew that it was a Ukrainian carol--my mother made sure that I was aware of that.

Today, "Carol of the Bells" is everywhere--you hear it at least ten times a day in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's.  It is now a staple of TV commercials--either in the instrumental version or with new words written to plug a product. (Giva giva, giva Garmin, for instance).

It really is a fairly new Christmas carol--unlike "O Come All Ye Faithful", which is hundreds of years old, or "Silent Night", which is about 175 years old.  "Carol of the Bells" was first performed just under 100 years ago.  It was written by a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was also a musician, composer, conductor, and teacher, who never saw the United States.  His name was Mykola Leontovych.  (1877-1921).  He was a famous musician in his day, and earned the nickname "The Ukrainian Bach."  He also is known as the person who composed the first liturgy (order of the service) in  the modern Ukrainian language for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Click here to hear Shchedryk sung in Ukrainian

Another interesting fact about The "Carol of the Bells" is that is that when it was written it was about birds.  It's original name was "Shchedryk," which refers to very old  pre- Christian songs,  a shshedrivka, that were sung to celebrate the New Year.  Its original words told about a swallow, which is an early spring bird in Ukraine, that comes to a landowner's house and tells him how rich he is.  The song was first performed in Kiev, Ukraine, in December 1916, and was an instant success.  The Ukrainian Capella, a choir directed by Alexander Koshetz, traveled throughout Europe performing Ukrainian music, including Leontovych's "Shchedryk."  Koshetz took the Capella to the United States, and "Shechdryk" was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in  October of 1921.

Mykola Leontovych on a stamp from Ukraine.

However, Leontovych didn't live to see or hear of the success of his song--he was murdered by a undercover agent of the Cheka--the forerunner of the Soviet KGB, on January 22, 1921.  Why was such a famous musician and composer killed by the Soviet Cheka?  Leontovych was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics and was associated with the very new and fragile independent government of Ukraine, which lasted from 1918-1922.  He was planning to leave Ukraine, and that may have played a part in his murder.

How did the song, "Shchedryk",  a song about birds, which was sung in the Ukrainian language, become the Carol of the Bells?  That was the doing of Peter J. Wilhousky.

Peter J. Wilhousky, (1902-1978) , a choral director and arranger, is the person who transformed "Shchedryk" into "The Carol of the Bells". Wilhousky was born in New Jersey in 1902, to Rusyn parents, Tte Rusyn people are a ethnic group that are related to the Ukrainians.  He showed a lot of early musical talent, and studied at the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts, which became The Julliard School. He was known as a talented choral conductor, and eventually went to work for NBC, and the NBC Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Wilhousky wrote a new arrangement of "Shchedryk," for  choral groups and new lyrics, renaming the song "The Carol of the Bells."  The renamed song was first performed in 1936.  Wilhousky's song caught on, and has been performed hundreds of thousands of times since then. There have been over 150 different arrangements of the song since 2004.  It has been used in movies and TV shows, such as  "Home Alone" and "The Santa Clause", and "Celtic Woman", and performed by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Boston Pops,  pop music stars and groups.  Now that Wilhousky's arrangement and lyrics are in the public domain, the song is ubiquitous.

Click on the link below to watch the strangest version of "The Carol of the Bells" I've ever seen.