100 Years of the Ukrainian ‘Carol of the Bells’
The “Carol of the Bells” has been Ukraine's trademark for more than 100 years now. The piece of music by Mykola Leontovych and the lyrics by Peter Wilhousky were combined into a song, which is played on Christmas all across the world
“The secret of Shchedryk, which conquered the world, has a number of factors to it. Obviously, the folk carol on which it is based is unique and wonderful. And certainly, there’s the talent of Mykola Leontovych, who managed to arrange it in a way to create a true gem. And then there’s the factor that they did a good job presenting this gem to the world,” Volodymyr Vyatrovych, Head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance said.
In the early 20th century even the leadership of the UNR – the Ukrainian People’s Republic, became involved in promoting Shchedryk outside Ukraine. In the year 1919, the UNR Commander in Chief Symon Petliura made sure that a choir was created and sent touring all over Europe.
“First and foremost Symon Petliura insisted they perform at the Paris Peace Conference. Then they went on tour for five-and-a-half years. In the first two and a half years they toured a dozen countries in western Europe: Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Poland… And for the two-and-a-half years it was a government-backed project, the choir was funded from the state budget, which of course was not easy. By then Ukraine was already occupied and the government was in exile. But cooperation with the performers was kept alive,” Tina Peresunko, research at the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies and author and curator of the “Shchedryck’s World Triumph” project said.
In 1922 the audience of Carnegie Hall in New York City was introduced to Shchedryk for the first time. This is when the American music industry discovered, what everyone in the country now knows as the “Carol of the Bells.”
The Ukrainian choir toured North and the South for two years. Finally in 1936, an American with Ukrainian roots, Peter Hollens wrote English lyrics for Shchedryk. To his ear, the tune sounded like bells ringing.
In the western world, Carol of the Bells became synonymous with Christmas cheer and became part of the pop culture appearing among others places, in the iconic 1990 holiday classic Home Alone.
The carol was used in advertising, soap operas and festive TV shows around the world.
For a century, Shchedryk has been a shining example of Ukraine’s cultural export to the world. But it was also an example of cultural diplomacy and promotion by the then Ukrainian leadership as well as by ethnic Ukrainians abroad – an example for new generations of Ukrainians to follow.