The Ukrainian folk song that became a symbol of freedom and a popular U.S. Christmas carol

KYIV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 13: Ukrainian Choir Shchedryk rehearses in the Palace of Children and Youth on February 13, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The United States and its allies have issued a series of warnings about a potential invasion by Russia, trying to deter Vladimir Putin by exposing his next possible moves. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has called for calm among its public.  (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

The first recording of “Schedryk” was released in October 1922, in New York on the Brunswick label.

The chorus went on to perform in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Canada. After the chorus’ performance in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian writer Henrique Coelho Neto wrote: “Sing captive Ukraine, sing little swallows! The spring you are waiting for will come.”

The tour officially ended in 1924, but Koshyts and some of his singers stayed in New York and continued to perform during the 1930s. During one of the concerts, an American composer and choir conductor Peter Wilhousky, who was of Ukrainian descent, heard “Shchedryk.” He decided to include the song in the repertoire of the school choir he was conducting. “Since the youngsters would not sing in Ukrainian, I had to compose a text in English,” he wrote to the Ukrainian Weekly in the 1970s. “I discarded the Ukrainian text about ‘shchedryk’ and instead concentrated on the merry tinkle of the bells which I heard in the music.”

Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936. He also rearranged the melody for orchestra with the new English lyrics for a radio show featuring the NBC Symphony Orchestra. And so “Shchedryk” was transformed into “Carol of the Bells”—a Christmas song that begins with the lyrics “Hark! How the bells.” The lyrics reference bells, caroling, and repeated wishes for a “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”

Since 1936, “Carol of the Bells” has been recorded in more than 150 vocal and instrumental versions. It’s been featured in TV ads and on film and TV soundtracks, most notably the 1990 Christmas comedy film Home Alone.

But now the Ukrainian roots of “Carol of the Bells” as a song symbolizing freedom and independence are being rediscovered in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On Dec. 4, nearly 100 years after “Shchedryk” had its North American debut, a Ukrainian children’s chorus took to the stage at Carnegie Hall to sing Leontovych’s original version.

And it took a lot more than practice, practice, practice to bring the young singers to Carnegie Hall. The journey of the Shchedryk Children’s Choir displayed the resilience of the Ukrainian people. The New York Times wrote:

The children of the Shchedryk choir … have been hit hard by the war. They have lost friends and relatives in the fighting; watched as Russian bombs have devastated schools, churches and city streets; and grappled with the anxiety and trauma of war. …

But the choristers have also forged a determination to use music as a way to heal Ukraine and promote their culture around the world. …

The choir hopes that the concert will help bring attention to Russia’s continuing attacks, including its recent efforts to damage Ukraine’s supply of electricity, heat and water, threatening a new kind of humanitarian crisis this winter.

“It has been exhausting,” said Mykhailo Kostyna, a 16-year-old singer. “We’re just happy now that we can share Ukraine’s culture and spirit with the world.”

The outbreak of the war left members of the Kyiv-based choir scattered across Ukraine and foreign countries. The choir held virtual rehearsals and its members stayed in touch on social media.

In August, the children’s choir reunited for a series of concerts in Denmark. In the fall, as it prepared for the Carnegie Hall concert, which had been planned before the Russian invasion, the singers rehearsed in Kyiv for the first time since the start of the war on Feb. 24.

When air raid sirens sounded to warn of another Russian missile and drone attack on Kyiv, the children had to rush from their regular rehearsal space in the Palace of Children and Youth to a nearby bomb shelter to resume practicing, using their cellphones and flashlights to light up the dark.

The choir—51 girls and five boys, ages 11-25—left Ukraine on Nov. 19 for Warsaw, where they were given rehearsal space. They finally arrived in New York at the end of November. On Dec. 1, the choir gave an impromptu performance of “Shchedryk” at Grand Central Station—a performance noted in a tweet by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink.

And then it was time for the Dec. 4 “Notes From Ukraine” concert, co-sponsored by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, at Carnegie Hall celebrating the centennial of the first U.S. performance of “Shchedryk.” The program showcased traditional and contemporary Ukrainian choral music as well as crosscultural musical exchanges between Ukraine and the U.S. The concert organizers wrote:

“A 1919 review of the Ukrainian Republic Choir in the Genevan journal La Patrie Suisse mused that the Ukrainian National Republic established its independence through the motto, ‘I sing, therefore I am.,’ Ukraine continues to sing and continues to be.”

And here’s the Shchedryk Children’s Choir performing the Ukrainian and English versions of the song with Ukrainian-American choral groups at Carnegie Hall.


⚡️The famous Ukrainian carol ‘Shchedryk,’ also known as ‘Carol of the Bells,’ was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Dec. 4.

The carol had its first performance at Carnegie hall 100 years ago, in 1922.

The concert included the Shchedryk Children’s Choir from Kyiv.

— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) December 5, 2022

The concert, hosted by film director Martin Scorsese and Ukrainian-American actress Vera Farmiga, raised funds for United 24, the global nongovernmental organization and crowdfunding platform launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in May to raise funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Zelenskyy gave a videotaped speech that began with the concert hall entirely in darkness to highlight the frequent blackouts across Ukraine due to Russia’s missile and drone attacks targeting the country’s infrastructure.

Peresunko concluded the program notes for the Carnegie Hall concert by writing:

Today is the time to remember. Today, Ukraine is once again facing Russian aggression. And again, Ukraine needs the support of the entire democratic world.

We believe that this time Ukraine will win. Carol of the Bells will continue to be heard every Christmas as a generous gift from Ukraine to the world, and as a guarantee of the worthy place Ukrainians hold in the circle of free peoples of the world.

And here is a video history of “Shchedryk”/”Carol of the Bells” that’s worth watching. 

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By dreamer_live

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