100 years since Ukraine's "Carol of the Bells" Went International
24 December, 2019

Its opening bars, almost haunting with that sparkling, entrancing four-note ostinato, will be familiar to millions worldwide. "Shchedryk" – or "Carol of the Bells", as it is known to English-language audiences – has become a mainstay of Christmas music, originally written by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914. The song reverberates with profound sensitivity: it is part uncanny and part full-bodied and rapturous, bound in by a lustrous melody which sounds like it is made out of glass.

But this year marks 100 years since "Shchedryk" premiered on the international stage. And its world debut, performed by the Ukrainian National Chorus, was closely linked to the history of Ukrainian statehood and diplomacy. Tina Peresunko, author and curator of the Shchedryk’s World Triumph Project – 100 Years of Cultural Diplomacy, believes the song has a crucial role in Ukrainian history.

“It unites representatives of all regions of Ukraine in a positive way and at the same time represents Ukraine in the international arena,” she says.

“It is probably the most famous Ukrainian cultural product in the world.”

Away from its modern day association with Christmas, originally "Shchedryk" – the title derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful, "shchedryj" – was a New Year song, describing the springtime arrival of a swallow which portends successful prospects for the coming months. Commissioned by conductor Oleksandr Koshyts, it was first performed in Ukraine in 1916.

“Personally, the song fascinates me emotionally,” says Peresunko. “Gentle and light, yet dramatic and rich, it is an example of rich Ukrainian emotionality.”

“For us, the Ukrainian cultural managers, "Shchedryk" is a wonderful lesson in artistic communication with the world.”

Something of the song’s magical potency stuck to Koshyts, and when he co-founded the Ukrainian Republic Capella – later the Ukrainian National Chorus – in 1919, it was "Shchedryk" which had a starring role in the group’s repertoire.

The Chorus, which was created to spread Ukrainian culture, toured across Europe for five and a half years. Peresunko thinks their performances of ‘Shchedryk’ “became a kind of soft power tool of Ukrainian diplomacy” for the burgeoning nation, with hopes that “the millennial Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian folklore presented in modern arrangements by Ukrainian composers like Leontovych would convince the world that Ukraine was not Russia, and that the Ukrainian people would gain recognition of the world and the right to state independence.”

“Polyphonic and folk singing is the basis of musical folklore of Ukraine, and this is how ‘Shchedryk’ impressed the world,” she explains.

Shchedryk soon began to conquer the international stage: Peresunko notes there were over 1,300 triumphant reviews of the venture and Ukrainian culture in the international press, despite political tensions. And when the Ukrainian National Chorus performed "Shchedryk" in Carnegie Hall in 1921, the song was overheard by Peter J. Wilhousky – an American conductor of Ukrainian descent.  He wrote new English lyrics, changing the song’s focus to a more Christmas theme, and in March 1936, the English rendition was heard for the first time in Madison Square Garden, New York. 

Though this was the beginning of the Americanization of the song – with the result being limited international awareness today of its Ukrainian roots – Peresunko notes that, initially, both versions of the song were equally valued.

“Shchedryk, with its authentic Ukrainian text and ‘spring swallow’ was no less popular in the 1920s in Europe and America than its English-language version after 1936,” she explains. “In the world press we find numerous translations of Shchedryk into English, Flemish, French, German.”

But the full hopes for the song went unfulfilled: the year that Wilhousky first noticed "Shchedryk" and catapulted the song to international fame was also the same year that its composer Leontovych was killed by a Soviet agent. Despite the dreams of Koshyts and his Chorus for international support for Ukrainian independence, Stalinist repression of Ukrainian culture and nationhood only worsened in the years following.

“That is why the history of the world premiere of ‘Shchedryk’ is so important to Ukraine,” says Peresunko. “It reminds us what can happen to our culture in the event of the loss of statehood.”

And the message of her Shchedryk’s World Triumph Project is that the story keeps developing. Even now, 100 years later, new renditions of the song – both in English and original Ukrainian – are still constantly released, performed by an eclectic mix of groups, from NBA basketball players to The Muppets. One famous version, far from the delicate Ukrainian original, is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s volatile, melodramatic remix with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", which has made its way into festive musical history. Electrified and vigorous, their rendition, called "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" tells the story of a lonely cello player performing a Christmas carol in war-torn Sarajevo.

And a more recent development to the story has come from another unusual place: north-western Spain. Coro Carabé, an eleven-member choir based in A Coruña in Galicia, held their Christmas concert on December 14 in Santiago, Betanzos, a nearby town – and one of the carols they chose to perform was "Shchedryk."

The choir, which specializes in choral music from across the world and across the generations, told Hromadske that they were attracted by the song’s distinctive aesthetic quality. 

“The carol is crisp with winter frost and the sound of bells and from the initial quiet mystery, it blooms into a wonderfully vital climax,” they explained. 

Though it was the English "Carol of the Bells" which first piqued their interest, after reading about the history of the song and its Ukrainian origins, they decided to bring it back to its roots.

“We realized how significant this song was for Ukrainians, so we decided to sing it in the original language,” they said.

“We all need our internal swallow telling us our fortunes will be favorable.”

READ MORE: Inside the Ukrainian Village That Makes Christmas Ornaments for All of Europe​

/By Juliette Bretan

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