At our Christmas concert this Saturday the 17th of December, our audience will hear carols from across the centuries and from around the world. Words and music dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries: from Ireland, Germany, Austria, Wales, Scotland, France, Finland and England, plus… one carol from Ukraine.
This Ukrainian catchy carol has now become a firm Yuletide favourite, but has its musical origins in revolutionary Eastern Europe. For what we now know as ‘The Carol of the Bells’ was originally a setting of a folktale by the Ukrainian choral director, music teacher and composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, born in 1877 in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire.
In the first decades of the 20th century he produced several popular choral arrangements but the most successful of these came in 1916, with the appearance of his ‘Shchedryk’ or ‘Bountiful Evening’, a New Year’s Eve carol telling the tale of a swallow flying inside a house and foretelling the riches which would come to the household the following spring. Its performance on Boxing Day that year in the Ukrainian capital Kiev attracted the attention of the local intelligentsia, of which the composer quickly became a member.
The setting had been commissioned by the director of the Ukrainian National Chorus, an ensemble formed in the wake of the recently declared independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, after the Russian Revolution of 1917. But this new found freedom was under threat from all sides and with the Russian army at the gates of Kiev, Leontovych moved back to his home town for safety.
But safe he was not to be: because of his involvement in the independence movement he was a marked man. One night in January 1921, while staying at his parents’ home, he was shot by his parents’ lodger, who turned out to be a Soviet agent. He died of his wounds shortly after.
So Leontovych never knew of the worldwide success his little carol would win. However, in the dying months of the People’s Republic, in October 1921, the National Chorus which Leontovych had done so much to support appeared at a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York and a performance of ‘Shchedryk’ was the evening’s highlight.
That persistent tune struck a chord with Ukrainian-American choral director Peter Wilhousky, a chord which remained in his head for the next fifteen years. But the story of the swallow meant little to Wilhousky and his fellow Americans, in listening to the tune he heard instead the sound of handbells. In 1936 Wilhousky put new words to the song and thus the new English lyrics of ‘The Carol of the Bells’ were born.
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This Friday at 6pm we will be carolling in Trafalgar Square under the Norwegian Christmas tree for St Joseph’s, and next Thursday at 7pm we will be at Lewisham station for Health Poverty Action.
Full details are available at the following links and we hope to see you there!