‘Carol of the Bells,’ a Christmas staple from Ukraine, a century later
By Rob LeDonne
For years, composer John Williams made the twinkling Christmas favorite “Carol of the Bells” a staple of his seasonal program.
“It’s a beloved carol that beautifully evokes the wonder and excitement of the holiday season,” he said in a recent interview. “It was always a highlight of our annual Boston Pops holiday concerts for the many years that I conducted the orchestra.”
The first time Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis played it for an audience, it “caught everybody off guard,” he recalled of his own bombastic arrangement, first released in 1988 for the group’s second holiday album, the blockbuster “A Fresh Aire Christmas.” “It’s a really invigorating tune and they never heard me do anything quite like it.”
A malleable song that conjures joyful exuberance or aching melancholy depending on the context, this year “Carol of the Bells” conveys both. The 100th anniversary of its debut American performance was Oct. 5, and it is being celebrated as one of Ukraine’s shining contributions to world culture at a time when the country is enduring a devastating war with Russia that is about to stretch into its 11th month.
“It’s something I think about all of the time,” said Tetyana Filevska, the creative director of the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine. The concert at Carnegie Hall that honored the centennial earlier this month was spearheaded by Filevska and her team, in association with Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it showcased the Shchedryk Children’s Choir, the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York and the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America. It was a fitting location considering its American debut occurred on the same stage a century ago.
Then as now, Ukraine was under threat from Russia, a shadow of an anxious past that still extends over the country. “We started planning the 100th-anniversary show two years ago,” Filevska said in a phone interview the day after the concert. “Back then, we had something very positive and cheerful in mind. But when the invasion broke out, we at first doubted we’d even be able to complete this. It was really hard to have to organize something while there’s a full-scale invasion happening in your country.”
That complicated history of “Carol of the Bells” has embodied a grim motif since its inception. Ukrainian composer and music teacher Mykola Leontovych first arranged the song, which has roots in Ukrainian folk music, christening it “Shchedryk” to celebrate the new year (its title shared a root with “Shchedrist,” Ukrainian for generosity). Ukrainian American Peter J. Wilhousky, a choral director and music director for New York City Public Schools, wrote and published new English lyrics in 1936 with the title “Carol of the Bells,” adding the seasonal signifiers “sweet silver bells” and announcing “Christmas is here.”
“Bountiful evening, bountiful evening, a New Year’s carol,” went the original Ukrainian verses, which centered on the fluttering innocence of a bird and the hope it brings. “A little swallow flew into the household.” Leontovych’s melodic foundation electrified audiences as an a cappella piece during this early iteration.
Leah Batstone, the artistic director of the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, who is working on a book on Ukrainian musical modernism, noted that the song stands out from other holiday fare. “It’s festive but not over the top,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s restrained. There’s a sophistication about it that’s not common, I guess, when it comes to Christmas music.”
Davis, of Mannheim Steamroller, suggested that the song has a dramatic and mystical quality that demands a certain sleight of hand from an arranger. “Most Christmas carols are what’s called strophic songs and depend on the words changing to extend the song out,” he said. “Since this is an extremely repetitive piece, you have to come up with different techniques for each verse and chorus to extend the arrangement.”
Many have been tempted to try from across the pop spectrum, including symphonic rock act Trans-Siberian Orchestra, singer Andra Day, the band Barenaked Ladies, country star LeAnn Rimes and the vocal group Pentatonix. A young Beyoncé performed the song a cappella in an original arrangement called “Carol of the Bells aka Opera of the Bells” with Destiny’s Child in 2001. Pop violinist Lindsey Stirling also recorded a popular version in 2017.
“In my arrangement, I really wanted to capture the dramatic nature of the song through electronic sonics while still staying true to the original,” Stirling said in an interview. “It has the perfect combination of whimsy and mystery, and as an instrumentalist I’ve always thought that it is the coolest instrumental jam that has ever been written.”
But it’s Williams who helped further cement “Carol of the Bells” into the holiday music vernacular when he included it in his 1992 score for “Home Alone,” which was set during Christmas.
“I don’t particularly recall who suggested its inclusion in the film, but it was used to great effect in the church scene where the young protagonist first decides to protect his home from the villains of the story,” Williams said. “I also interpolated the theme in the music I composed for the subsequent scene where Kevin sets his many ingenious booby traps throughout the house. I suppose for this reason, the music has become somewhat associated with the success of the film.”
As the original “Shchedryk” gained prominence in the late 1910s as a popular a cappella, it wound up providing a soundtrack to tumult. The country was embroiled in the Bolshevik Revolution, which would later pave the way for the Russian Civil War and the subsequent creation of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Leontovych’s reputation as a star of Ukrainian culture was on the rise. After fleeing Kyiv upon its capture by the White Army, he founded a music school in the western Ukrainian town of Tul’chyn. But on Jan. 23, 1921, he was targeted during a visit to his parents’ home, and an undercover Russian agent killed Leontovych in his sleep, part of a concerted effort to wipe away Ukrainian culture.
“Unfortunately history is repeating itself today in the worst manner,” Filevska said, referring to the October murder of conductor Yuriy Kerpatenko in his home after he refused to perform in a concert in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.
Dora Chomiak, CEO of Razom for Ukraine, a presenter of the 100th-anniversary concert, said, “When ‘Shchedryk’ premiered at Carnegie, it was part of the same effort to defend an independent Ukraine.” In advance of the performance, the organization posted a video of members of the children’s choir rehearsing in the dark as the country grappled with rolling blackouts.
“I know this is said an awful lot, but while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme,” Batstone said. “It’s tragic that in 2022 we are still having the same conversations and exerting the same efforts on behalf of the same cause that was happening in 1922.” When “Shchedryk” premiered at Carnegie Hall that October, performed by the Ukrainian National Chorus and conducted by Alexander Koshetz, Leontovych’s murder was still top of mind.
A century later, the anniversary presentation served as both a message of resilience, as well as one of awareness. “It is so important that, just as it did 100 years ago, Shchedryk’s melody plays on this stage,” Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska said in a videotaped message shown at the performance. “They are trying to silence our voice, but it rings out.”
Filevska, sounding weary yet hopeful, noted, “Of course the song sounds so different in this situation.”
“It’s much more than just another Christmas song,” she added. “It’s a symbol of what’s been happening to our country and our people for the last century.”