For this year’s Christmas wishes, I will start with a lovely rendition of one of my favorite carols, Carol of the Bells, sung here by Voices of Lee:

The carol itself piqued my curiosity when I read a two-line description of its origins. According to this, it was composed in 1904 by a Ukranian composer called Mykola Leontovich, who based it on a traditional Ukranian folk song. Leontovich raised awareness of the Ukranian struggle for independence from Soviet Russia by touring the West, playing (among other songs) Carol of the Bells. As a result, he was murdered in 1921 by a Soviet agent.

At a time when Ukraine is once again in the news for its struggle for independence from Russia, this moved me enough to research some more. I am sharing here this haunting son’s amazing history based on information I found on Rice University and Wikipedia.


Victorian carolers | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: Pixabay

Titled “Shchedryk,” the original lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas. The song tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The song’s title is derived from the Ukrainian word “shchedryj,” which means “bountiful.” The swallow is a herald of spring coming and suggests a possible pre-Christian origin. The original lyrics describe the swallow calling out to the master of the home and telling him about all the wealth that he will possess — healthy livestock, money and a beautiful wife.

For a Christmas concert in Ukraine, a choir director commissioned Leontovich to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies. Using the four notes and original folk lyrics of a well-wishing song he found in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies, Leontovich created a completely new work for choir – “Shchedryk.” The folk melody that Leontovich used to compose his work was one of many well-wishing tunes sung in many Ukrainian villages on Jan. 13 — New Year’s Eve on the Julian calendar — usually 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’ was composed and performed during a time when there was intense political struggle and social upheaval in Ukraine. The same choir director who commissioned the song formed the Ukrainian National Chorus, mandated by a fledgling Ukrainian government, in 1919 to promote Ukranian music in major cultural centers in the West. Touring across Europe and North and South America, the chorus performed over 1,000 concerts.

The Ukrainian National Chorus did not limit its performances of “Shchedryk” to the Julian New Year, and the song became popular in other parts of the world as the choir introduced it to other nationalities, including the United States, where they first performed the song to a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall Oct. 5, 1921.

When American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s choral work, it reminded him of bells; so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery for his choir. He copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936 and also published the song, despite the fact that the work was published almost two decades earlier in Soviet Ukraine. In the late 1930s, several choirs that Wilhousky directed began performing his Anglicized arrangement during the Christmas holiday season.

Mykola Leontovych

Mykola Leontovych | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Mykola Leontovych, composer of Carol of the Bells. Image: Wikipedia

Leontovych was born and raised in 1877 in the Podolia province of the Russian Empire (now in Ukraine). With the independence of the Ukrainian state in the 1917 revolution, Leontovych moved to Kiev. Once there, he helped organize the first Ukrainian State Orchestra and participated in the founding of the Ukrainian Republic Capella of which he was the commissioner.

During the conquest of Kiev on 31 August 1919, the Denikin Army persecuted the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Because of this, Leontovych went to Tulchyn with his family. There, he started the city’s first music school, since the college where he had worked was closed down by the Bolsheviks. But Leontovych himself was now a target. His participation in the independence movement, such as commissioning Ukrainian Republic Capella, aimed at promoting Ukraine as an independent state. This irked the Soviets and earned him many enemies.

His older daughter Halyna later recalled her father saying, shortly before his death, that he had documents to leave the country for Romania, and that he had these documents with him among his sheet music during a concert. However, after returning from tea following the concert, Leontovych noticed that someone had gone through his papers.

During the night of 22–23 January 1921, Leontovych stayed over at his parents’ house to celebrate the Orthodox Feast of the Nativity. A stranger, later revealed to be Chekist (Soviet state security) undercover agent Afanasy Grishchenko, asked to also stay the night. He and Leontovych shared a room.

At dawn, Grishchenko shot the composer (who died of blood loss a few hours later) after robbing his family.

Leontovych is known as a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Church, where he is also remembered for his liturgy, the first liturgy composed in the vernacular, specifically in the modern Ukrainian language.

No Prophet Is Accepted…

Despite the song’s ubiquitous presence during the holidays in the West, “Shchedryk” remains less popular in its country of origin, where songs like it are still performed on the eve of the Julian New Year.

Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student who is studying the song’s history, moved to Ukraine in 1992 to further his musical studies. Potoczniak remembers that the first piece he had to learn for his choral conducting course was Leontovich’s original “Shchedryk.” At the time, he was unfamiliar with the song’s origin; however, he immediately recognized the melody as “Carol of the Bells.”

When Potoczniak was directing a small group of amateur carolers in Ukraine, he was told that it was “out of place” for them to sing melodies like “Shchedryk” at Christmastime. Potoczniak recalls how he and singers were caroling door-to-door with a “Shchedryk”-like melody he collected in a Western Ukrainian village. “One family told us it was too early to sing that song,” he said.

So, next time you’re at the supermarket or watching Home Alone, spend a moment’s thought for the amazing story of this little musical masterpiece!


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