Birds and Bells

The strange fate of an Ukrainian song

On October 5 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus held a concert at Carnegie Hall during a tour. Among the music performed was a fast-paced new-year song called Shchedryk (The Bountiful One), written by Mykola Leontovych, which remained imprintend in Peter Wihousky’s mind. Peter Wihousky, an American composer with Ukrainian roots, born in New Jersey, was struck by the beauty of this two-minute piece, and decided to rewrite it himself. Peter literally transcribed the entire piece note by note, and furthermore decided to change its text and title completely, instead of trying to translate the lyrics into English.This decision changed the song’s fate completely.

Peter Wihousky probably understood the lyrics of the original composition, as well as the cultural heritage that was within. Or maybe not. Nonetheless, what in the song was musically depicted as a bird’s call, seemed to him much more alike to the sounds of bells, perhaps a more familiar and meaningful one to his ears. This catchy, nearly obsessive, four-note ostinato melody of Shchedryk transformed its meaning: not a bird anymore, but a ringing bell.

Because of his inspired vision, the song that most of the Western world now knows as Carol of the Bells was rebaptized; its past nearly forgotten. For Peter Wihoysky, composer, educator and choral conductor at NBC Radio, it was not supposedly an arduous challenge to make this catchy tune a new must-hear of Christmas times.

Carol of the Bells is one of the most famous Anglo-saxon Christmas tunes ever made. In popular culture, as well as in my musician mind, it has always been a song connected to Christianity, and mostly England and the USA - maybe for its many church choir versions. Carol of the Bells is not only a present earworm during the Christmas holidays, even in Italy, but it was and still is featured in quite a number of (mostly American) movies.

Now, let’s go back to what Carol of the Bells was, at least at its beginning.

The song, composed in 1904 and premiered in 1917 is based on a very ancient chant, but not much is known about the actual folk song that inspired Mykola Leontovych. This canto ostinato that the readers might be humming already, is constructed with a simple rhetorical rhythmic figure called a hemiola, a strategy that alternates two different pulses perceptions while maintaining the same measure (the piece is written in 3/4 bars but could be counted or felt very often in 6/8). Its hypnotic structure is definitely proof of being a source of very old singing traditions (such as the nearby sutartines from Lithuania) and it is thought to be connected to the period of the year that, before the “advent” of Christianity, and the following calendar synchronizations, was connected to the coming New Year: April, spring; The cyclical rebirth of nature after months of harsh frosty winter. In this scenario, a swallow, the symbol of spring by excellence, enters a farmer’s house, to bring good news.

So the little bird speaks:

"Come out, come out, O master,

look at the sheep pen,

there the ewes have given birth

and the lamb kins have been born

Your goods (livestock) are great,

you will have a lot of money by selling them.

Your goods (livestock) are great,

you will have a lot of money by selling them.

If not money, then chaff from all the grain you will harvest

you have a beautiful dark-eyed wife."

Bountiful evening, bountiful evening, a New Year's carol,

A little swallow flew.

Mykola Leontovych, a musician brought up within a highly religious environment and member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, used a text that we could describe as secular. A talking “magic” bird that brings news and predicts the future is such a deeply rooted Eurasian vision that is still visible in many fairy tale collections, the first of which is Arabian Nights, after this follows many other examples, including Hans Christian Andersen. This secular, maybe pagan vision, that here appears to be the symbol of cyclical and seasonal rebirth, has been completely wiped out by the newly-written, catchy lyrics of Carol of the Bells.

Hark how the bells,

sweet silver bells,

all seem to say,

throw cares away

Christmas is here,

bringing good cheer,

to young and old,

meek and the bold,

Ding dong ding dong

that is their song

with joyful ring

all caroling

One seems to hear

words of good cheer

from everywhere

filling the air

Oh how they pound,

raising the sound,

o’er hill and dale,

telling their tale,

Gaily they ring

while people sing

songs of good cheer,

Christmas is here,

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,

When, in 2022, I came to know that what I thought was a simple Anglo-saxon Christmas song was, in fact, a 20th century folk-tune-based Ukrainian composition, I felt surprised and then puzzled.

Surprised, as I could not see this coming at all. Not one doubt have I ever had about the cultural inheritage of the song, and this peculiar piece of information unfortunately never reached my ears before then. After further examination, I became puzzled as I started to see many traces of an Eastern European music “style” and was shocked at how I, as a musician, could have missed it.
In fact, to clear the fog, let’s now compare it to some of the most important Euro-centric Christmas carols:Joy to the World, written in 1719 by English minister Isaac Watts and inspired by two fragments of Handel’s Messiah, respectively: Glory to God and Lift up Your Heads, is a hymn-like, luminous and joyful expression of “God’s glory”. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht  (Silent Night, Holy Night), composed near Salzburg in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber with lyrics by Joseph Mohr - and declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011, is a more meditative yet bright piece that cannot do anything but bring a and peaceful feeling to the listeners’ hearts.
I would easily bet that if a reader would now listen to any version of Carol of the Bells, be that in English or Ukrainian, they would be astounded by how musically and culturally distant it sounds. Carol of the Bells, often played nearly in a rush, has a definitive urgent tone to it that could make your heart rate faster. None of our Christmas carols have this quality. It is also written in minor tonality, which colors it with a touch of sadness and melancholy in spite of the joyful lyrics.
Now, none of the above is proof of its Eastern European/Slavic birthplace by itself.

But more technical blueprints are scattered in the music, for the most investigative musical ears to find. Here I would like to briefly mention some of the more meaningful ones (Sorry, non-musician readers).
1- Its plagal attitude: constantly avoiding the V-I strong and definitive cadence and opting for a constant softer IV-I surely recalls the Orthodox Russian male choir repertoire.
2- The use of the descendent tetrachord (G-F-Eb-D), here even without a final dominant chord, is furthermore completely disconnected to the lyrics: its rhetorical meaning in Western music has always been connected to sadness and grief, most definitely when combined with a text. Here the joyful wake-up call of the farmer by the little talking swallow does not match in any way this rhetorical figure. I must point out that it is pretty usual in folk music of various origins to use “sad” and dark melodies over happier lyrics, donating a very “blue” feeling to the music. Even so, this may be a further proof of its cultural distance from Western Euro-centric Classical music.
Technicalities apart, many questions rose to me after investigating the strange story of Shchredryk:

What is a popular song? Should a popular song have an author? When does a popular song feel part of your culture?

This is not the space to even try to answer these questions, which go far beyond my knowledge.

Nonetheless, one thing is sure: a song feels part of your culture when it is constantly present in a mediatic sense. Carol of the Bells is not only an earworm during Christmas times in shopping malls but it is also very much present in cinema, one of the most popular ones being the everlasting Home Alone. But the song branches itself out until much more authorial works, such as Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Dear.
Carol of the Bells is such a popular tune that gets added in products that do not include it but “should'': a huge fandom wave crashed over Harry Potter with new tailor-made scenes that feature it when, in reality, it is not part of the soundtrack at all. But let’s admit it: how well would Carol of the Bells fit, sung by Hogwards choir, during a snowy Xmas day?
Last but not least, Carol of the Bells might actually seem deeply rooted in our Western European and Anglo-speaking American traditions because of a further completely coincidental similarity: the ancient chant over which the piece is built upon has the same music intervals and very similar rhythm compared with the incipit of the famous Dies Irae Gregorian chant (F-E-F-D).

This last melody, featured in a countless amount of movies, from Metropolis until The Shining and Disney’s The Lion King, got often “magically” intertwined with Carol of the Bells in Xmas-related products. One of the most effective examples of this strange brotherhood is definitely Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, with music by Danny Elfman. Most of the soundtrack is built around this melodic similarity that connects the magic feeling of Christmas with an upcoming, unavoidable and grotesque sense of doom. This double-edged music is mostly audible in the scene: Making Xmas.

Curious to hear more?

Here several different rendition of Carol of the Bells (English version):

For choir
For orchestra, instrumental
Remix a cappella
For piano solo

And finally back to the original Ukrainian version.


Carol of the Bells, most of the time, as first result in google, is a song by Pentatonix. Ok.

Michele Mazzini 19/03/2022
Milano, Italy

Thanks to:
Gabriele Faccialà from our Skip Intro!

Revised by:

Manuela Giasi
Paolo Gorini
Emily Bannister