“Carol of the Bells” is a popular Christmas carol composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on a Ukrainian folk chant called “Shchedryk“. Wilhousky’s lyrics are copyrighted, although the original musical composition is not.
The song is recognized by a four-note ostinato motif. It has been arranged many times for different genres, styles of singing and settings and has been covered by artists and groups of many genres: classical, metal, jazz, country music, rock, and pop. The piece has also been featured in films, television shows, and parodies.
Conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir Oleksander Koshyts (also spelled Alexander Koshetz) commissioned Leontovych to create the song based on traditional Ukrainian folk chants, and the resulting new work for choir, “Shchedryk”, was based on four notes Leontovych found in an anthology.
The original folk story related in the song was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated with the coming of spring in April. The original Ukrainian title translates to “the generous one” or is perhaps derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful (shchedryj), and tells a tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.
With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally associated became Malanka (Ukrainian: Щедрий вечір Shchedry vechir), the eve of the Julian New Year (the night of 13–14 January in the Gregorian calendar). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Shchedrivky.
The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir. Two other settings of the composition were also created by Leontovych: one for women’s choir (unaccompanied) and another for children’s choir with piano accompaniment. These are rarely performed or recorded.
Wilhousky rearranged the melody for orchestra with new lyrics for NBC radio network’s symphony orchestra, centered around the theme of bells because the melody reminded him of hand bells, which begins “Hark! How the bells”. It was first aired during the Great Depression, and Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936 and also published the song, despite the song having been published almost two decades earlier in the Ukrainian National Republic. Its initial popularity stemmed largely from Wilhousky’s ability to reach a wide audience as his role as arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is now strongly associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics, which reference bells, caroling, and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas”.
An alternate English version, “Ring, Christmas Bells”, featuring Nativity-based lyrics was written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947. Two other versions exist by anonymous writers: one from 1957 titled “Come Dance and Sing” and one from 1972 that begins “Hark to the bells”.
American recordings by various artists began to surface on the radio in the 1940s. The song gained further popularity when it was featured in television advertisements for champagne in the 1970s by French a cappella group the Swingle Singers. “Carol of the Bells” has been recorded into over 150 versions and re-arrangements for varying vocal and instrumental compositions.