Tina Peresunko: “Carol of the Bells: The Unknown History of Well-Known Song”

Tina Peresunko: “Carol of the Bells: The Unknown History of Well-Known Song”

On October 5, 1922, a choir from Ukraine performed on the world-famous stage at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Oleksandr Koshyts. The artists arrived directly from Europe, where they had triumphantly toured at the request of Symon Petliura, the head of the newly independent Ukrainian Democratic Republic. The goal of their tour was for Ukraine to gain international recognition and military support in its war with Russia.

After the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917, Ukraine declared its independence on January 22, 1918, the second nation to do so after Finland. The next countries to break free from Russia’s “prison of nations” were the Baltic states, the South Caucasus, and Poland.

At this moment in history, the world did not know much about Ukraine. Centuries of Russian propaganda had declared that Ukrainians and Russians were one people. And to this end, the Bolsheviks who seized power in Moscow immediately launched a full-scale offensive on Kyiv.

In hopes of persuading the West to support Ukraine, Petliura launched a mission of cultural diplomacy. In January 1919, Petliura sent a choir on tour throughout Europe to demonstrate with song the difference between the Ukrainian people and the Russian people and to promote Ukraine’s right to be independent.

One of the songs they sang was “Shchedryk” – a choral piece written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych based on ancient Ukrainian New Year’s songs. “Shchedryk” was the standout hit of their repertoire and symbolically became Ukraine’s musical calling card during a tour that spanned across 45 cities in 10 Western European countries.

From London to Paris, Vienna to Brussels – “Shchedryk” received standing ovations from audiences. “Shchedryk – it’s a masterpiece of folk art,” wrote the Brussels-based newspaper Le XX Siècle. “One of the most beautiful songs in the program – ‘Shchedryk,’” declared the London magazine The Punch. “Ukraine’s cultural maturity should become for the world a legitimization of its political independence,” summarized the Viennese publication Musica Divina.

Despite the enthusiasm and admiration for Ukrainian culture, the Western world did not recognize an independent Ukraine. In 1921, the Entente powers agreed that Ukrainian land would be split amongst neighboring governments with the largest part of Ukrainian territory occupied by Soviet Russia.

Russia immediately began retaliating and destroying Ukraine’s intelligentsia. Shchedryk’s composer, Leontovych, ended up on a hit list. On January 23, 1921, Leontovych was shot in his father’s home in the Vinnytsia region by a Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage) agent. The composer was finishing his first opera at the time of his murder.

Having lost their homeland, Koshyts’s choir departs for the United States of America. On October 5, 1922, the Ukrainian choir performs at Carnegie Hall, and “Shchedryk” is heard for the first time in North America. “This choral singing overwhelmed us,” wrote the correspondent for The Globe and Commercial. “Shchedryk had to be repeated,” wrote The Sun newspaper’s columnist.

After the concert in New York City, the singers perform in 115 other American cities and then went on to perform in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and even Cuba.

Everywhere the Ukrainian choir performed, audiences demanded encores of Leontovych’s “Shchedryk.” The song reminded the world of Ukraine’s struggle for independence. “Sing captive Ukraine, sing little swallows! The spring you are waiting for will come,” wrote writer Henrique Coelho Neto after the choir’s premiere in Rio de Janeiro.

In Ukraine, however, a “Russian winter” swept the land. Songs remained the only way to express a desire for freedom. And in this context, the Ukrainian “Shchedryk” – today celebrated around the world – became known by its English-language version “Carol of the Bells.”

The English-language text to Leontovych’s song was written by American conductor of Ukrainian origin Peter Wilhousky. After hearing “Shchedryk” performed by Ukrainians, he decided to include it 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.”

In 1936, Wilhousky published his song with New York music publisher Carl Fischer. The score reads: Carol of the Bells – Ukrainian carol (Christmas); music – M. Leontovich; words and arrangement – P. J. Wilhousky.

Over the following decades, the song became a bestseller. Every Christmas, the song is heard in every corner of America and around the whole world.

The song’s wide-ranging musical arrangements are well-known, and the melody is used in films and commercials. The song brings joy over the holidays to all nations, although few people know the tragic fate of the song’s author and the song’s unique diplomatic mission during Ukraine’s first modern declaration of independence.

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.

Tina Peresunko, Kyiv, Ukraine, November 2022