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Picture of Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wearing traditional dress and a picture of an early recording of the carol Shchedryk

The Story of Carol of the Bells/Shchedryk

Audio of ‘The Story of Carol of the Bells for Christmas Eve’ broadcast on FOTW Radio

On Christmas Eve, I did a special radio broadcast on FOTW Radio, mainly for a group of Japanese listeners who have started regularly tuning in since last Halloween. They had asked if I would play the pop songs of Masaki Aiba from the group Arashi, as part of a birthday celebration for him, which fitted well with also playing Christmas carols and holiday season songs. I also made this small audio feature as a backstory to the Carol of the Bells Christmas song, that I have liked for a number of years. Anyway, below is a transcript of the feature:

Hi everyone, I hope you are having a good Christmas eve.

This is IJ Wilson, and I would like to share a little bit of a story with you, about the beautiful and brilliant Christmas song known as Carol of the Bells.

It is something that you often hear around Christmas time, in shopping centres, in movies and on TV shows.

But whereas most of us know at least two or three carols off by heart, this one sits there in the background of our knowledge.

One of the listeners to FOTW Radio, recently described it as sounding like a ‘mechanical watch’ which I think is a brilliant description. It has a 3/4 rhythm, with a four-note ostinato — which is a kind of riff that keeps repeating throughout a piece of music, which these days someone might call a ‘loop’. But it also runs at 120 beats per minute, which is like a clock running at double-speed.

It is also a piece of music that has a haunting quality: you hear it with bells and a high-pitched chime, a sleigh-bell jingle that connects it to reindeer, and the colder regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It rescues Santa from standing outside of shopping centres, and drops him back into a mysterious snow-capped forest, with the wind howling all around him.

But what if I told you that originally, this song had nothing at all to do with Christmas?

The true story behind Carol of the Bells is that it is based on a Ukrainian folk song called Shchedryk, which translates as Bountiful Evening; but it it is also known in English as The Little Swallow.

It is a traditional song, which was originally sung on New Year’s Eve of the Julian calendar which falls on the 13th of January — but this folk song possibly goes much further back to a time before Christianity. It is not about bells or Christmas cheer — but is actually the song of a swallow, who flies into a family home, to sing to the master of the house, a song about his family’s good future:

“Bountiful, bountiful,
New Year’s Carol;
A little swallow flew in
And started to twitter
Calling the master of the house:

“Come! Come quickly, master,
Look at your homestead,
Over there the sheep are rolling
And the lambkins have been born.
Since your livestock is healthy,
You will have a lot of money.
Since your livestock is healthy,
You will have a lot of money,
If not money, then grain.
You also have a wife who personifies beauty.

Bountiful, bountiful,
New Year’s Carol,
A little swallow flew in
And started to twitter.”

It was a song that groups of village girls would go from house to house singing to their neighbours, who in turn would give them a present, something to eat for their performance.

In 1914, composer Mykola Leontovych arranged this folk song into a modern piece for choirs, and it was first performed by choirmaster Alexander Koshetz in 1916 on the 25th of December.

It was part of a push at the end of the First World War for Ukraine to become an independent country — as the Tsarist Russian empire, which it had previously been a part of, was collapsing — and the Bolshevik Revolution would not occur until the following year.

During the time, Koshetz took his choir, and travelled all around the world, performing this song Shchedryk over a thousand times.

While they were in the United States playing at Carnegie Hall in 1921, an American choir master and arranger, Peter Wilhousky, who was also of East European heritage, heard this wonderful song and decided to rework it as a Christmas carol, giving it new lyrics, and changing its name to Carol of the Bells.

The song became separated from its roots; but kept it’s haunting quality which was nothing at all to with Christmas, but life in a remote time in our history, and about a new year’s wish and hope for a brighter future. It was also an appreciation of nature, which in many ways points back to its folkloric origins.

This passionate push for Ukrainian culture by the choirmaster Koshetz, brought this beautiful song to the rest of the world. Sadly, the composer Mykola Leontovych had died earlier that year, and would not know about its wonderful transformation.

And although many people — including me — do not know much about its origins, it has captured our imagination in a way that many songs do not.

When I look at the music platform Soundcloud, which is full of independent musicians who upload their own good work, I can find hundreds of different versions of Carol of the Bells — from Dubstep, which is one of my favourites, to rock and heavy metal, and synthwave.

Anyway, I hope have you all enjoyed listening to this.

Thanks very much to Hatena, one of our listeners, who inspired me to put this into words, by giving me that great mechanical watch description! I have based my research on the Wikipedia pages for Carol of the Bells, Shchedryk; an article on the Rice University website connected with the research of Anthony Potoczniak; The Ukrainian Week website; the website Mamalisa.com, which shared the translation of the original lyrics (where I changed a couple of words so that some of my listeners might understand it better); and the Encyclopedia of Ukraine.com

I’d like to end by playing a recent recording by The Teshin Company of the original Shchedryk as composed by Mykola Leontovych.

I hope you all have a great Christmas, and thanks very much for listening.

*The header image is of Mykola Leontovych wearing a Ukrainian shirt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons + and an early recording of Shchedryk under choirmaster Alexander Koshetz.

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