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This is a story of
a Ukrainian song that became a symbol of Christmas
all over the world
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Today we know more than 1,000 versions of Shchedryk. But its origins go all the way back to the pre-Christian era and to ancient Ukrainian culture. At that time, people celebrated the New Year in spring when the swallows returned home after the long winter.

People blessed one another for a good harvest and prosperity in their homes, by singing ritual songs. One of these songs was Shchedryk, a simple 4-note melody, which featured a swallow as its main character.

Pattern Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk
For a long time the song lived in Ukrainian folklore until a talented Ukrainian conductor and composer, Mykola Leontovych, heard it. Taking a simple monophonic melody he went on to create a choral masterpiece.
Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921),
Ukrainian composer
Leontovych spent a long time working on the arrangement of Shchedryk.
First edition of Mykola Leontovych’s Shchedryk, 1918
This new choral version of Shchedryk was premiered at a performance in Kyiv in December 1916 at the Kyiv Philharmonic. The choir was led by a well-known conductor, Oleksandr Koshyts.
Kyiv Philharmonic

In 1918, Ukraine declared independence and had to fight for its recognition by the international community. The head of the newly created Ukrainian state, Symon Petliura, former well-known journalist, editor and art critic, chose a song as one of his tools of diplomacy.

On January 1, 1919, at one of Oleksandr Koshyts’ concerts, Petliura heard a composition by Leontovych. This wasn’t Shchedryk, but a song called Legend. He liked it so much that he directed Koshyts to assemble a choir of 100 of the best singers to go on a European tour.

Symon Petliura (1879-1926),
Head of the Ukrainian State in 1919-1921
Oleksandr Koshyts (1875-1944),
Ukrainian choral conductor
The choir had to be formed immediately in order to accomplish an important mission – “to sing for the independence of Ukraine”.
At that time, the Paris Peace Conference convened its deliberations in France, during which leaders of nations, victorious in World War I, set about redrawing European borders. It was there that the fate of Ukraine was also decided.And with the help of the touring choir, Symon Petliura wanted to gain international recognition for Ukraine and foreign support in the fight against Bolshevik Russia.
Paris Peace Conference, 1919

But the road to Paris was not easy. Russia’s Bolshevik army entered Kyiv and the evacuation began. The choir managed to leave Kyiv on February 4, 1919, just one day before Russian Bolsheviks captured the city.

Only 30 singers dared to go on tour. First they left for Kamyanets-Podilsky, where the rest of the choristers were selected. Then they proceeded to Stanislaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk), where the choir gave its first two concerts. And eventually they travelled abroad.

Ukrainian chorus in Stanislaviv, 1919


  • 1919-1921
  • 10 countries
  • 74 concert halls
  • 45 cities
  • 600 publications in the press

Shchedryk’s runaway success on the world stage began in Czechoslovakia. Although the original idea had been to perform in national costumes, the singers appeared before the audience in classic European attire: black tailcoats – for men, white silk gowns – for women. This was to indicate that Ukraine is a modern nation, and not a rural one.

The premiere took place on May 11, 1919 in the most prestigious hall in the country – the Prague National Theatre. This is where a foreign audience for the first time was captivated by the magic of Shchedryk.

Ukrainian chorus in Prague, 1919
Austria was the next country in the Ukrainian choir’s tour. The premiere of Shchedryk took place in the famous Wiener Konzerthaus.
Wiener Konzerthaus
Concert Hall
The Austrian press wrote: “Ukraine’s cultural maturity must become the legitimization of its political independence in the world”. The Ukrainian choir performed 11 concerts here, and more than 70 reviews were published in local newspapers.
Announcement of the concert
at Wiener Konzerthaus, 1919
The next stop was Switzerland. The ambassador of France who was present at the concert in Bern, was so fascinated by the choir’s singing that he facilitated its entry to Paris.
Ukrainian choir with representatives of the Ukrainian diplomatic mission in Bern, 1919

Finally, the Ukrainians arrived in France. The choir reached its destination only nine months after the beginning of their tour, as the French government had long denied visas to singers from an unrecognized state.

In France the touring choir performed not only in Paris, but also in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nice, Marseille and Lyon. In total, 25 concerts were sung, and everywhere Shchedryk was rewarded by encores.

Postcard from Paris with a view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower
Poster of the Ukrainian premiere in Paris, 1919

Famous composers, conductors and music critics admire Ukrainian culture, but also call for the recognition of Ukraine’s independence. However, the French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, on whom all Ukrainian music diplomacy efforts were focused, did not attend any of the concerts. He was chairman of the Paris Peace Conference and did not support the idea of an independent Ukraine.

This is despite his daughter’s attempts to persuade him to listen to the Ukrainians. Fascinated by Ukrainian singing, Thérèse Junq-Clemenceau tried to organize a concert at the Paris Opera, but her attempts failed.

Letter from Thérèse Junq-Clemenceau to Hanna Vatych, Ukrainian choir’s translator.
Thérèse Junq-Clemenceau, daughter of Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France (1917-1920)
After France, the Ukrainian chorus continued to tour Europe. During 1920-1921, Oleksandr Koshyts’ choir presented close to 100 concerts in Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Poland and Spain.
Royal Theatre of La Monnaie, Brussels
Announcement of the Ukrainian premiere at the Royal Theatre of La Monnaie in Brussels, 1920
Their concerts were attended by the members of royal families, heads of state, famous academics and music critics. In particular, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium was among the guests who admired the Ukrainian music and the singing.
Queen Elisabeth of Bavaria, 3-rd Queen of Belgium, and her signature in the book of visitors of the Ukrainian concerts
Leontovych’s song became one of the most loved in the program of the Ukrainian choir. Shchedryk was translated into different European languages and performed by foreign choirs.
Translation of Shchedryk into French from an article by a famous Belgian poet and writer Franz Hellens (1871-1972)

But despite the fascination with these Ukrainian songs, the Western leaders did not recognize Ukraine’s independence. In 1921, Ukraine was occupied by Bolshevik Russia. And the punitive Soviet authorities immediately began purging the Ukrainian intelligentsia.

Mykola Leontovych, the author of Shchedryk, was also targeted by a VChK (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission) agent. On January 23, 1921, he was killed in his parents’ house in Vinnytsia region.

Portrait of Mykola Leontovych by B. Roerich, 1921

American Tour

  • 1922-1924
  • 7 countries
  • 150 concert halls
  • 400 concerts
  • 150 cities
  • 2000 publications in the press
In 1922, having lost their homeland, the Ukrainian singers moved to the United States. That’s how the melody of the future Carol of the Bells made its first appearance on the American continent. Famous impresario Max Rabinov, who had heard the choir’s performance in Paris, organized their tour in the USA.
Arrival of the Ukrainian choir in New York, September 26, 1922.
Page from the booklet of the Ukrainian tour in the USA, 1922-1924. Picture by Serge Sudeikin
On September 26, they arrived in New York. On October 5 they gave their first concert at Carnegie Hall, where the premiere of Shchedryk took place. The song received rapturous applause and calls for an encore. “Shchedryk had to be repeated”, wrote the New York newspaper “Sun”.
Concert program of premiere at Carnegie Hall, October 5, 1922
Play music
Shortly after their arrival in the USA, the choir recorded several songs, including Shchedryk, with the New York record company Brunswick. This old recording is still available for listening today.
This was the start of the American triumph of Leontovych’s melody. On October 6, the Ukrainians performed at the Academy of Music of Philadelphia, and on October 7 – at Princeton University. Then Yale, Harvard, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Dallas and St. Louis. In total, more than 40 cities and 60 concerts in the most prestigious music halls and universities across the United States took place. And this was only in the first two and a half months of touring.
Announcement of the Ukrainian National Chorus’s
American tour in October-December, 1922
40 cities
Music critics, press, famous musicians, deans and presidents of American universities – all of them admired the Ukrainian choir and the performances they heard.
Excerpts from articles about Ukrainian concerts in the American press, 1922
Their work is an expression of the highest form of art and our Princeton audience was enthusiastic in its approval and appreciation.
John Grier Hibben,
President of Princeton University,
From a letter dated November 21st, 1922
After a successful tour in the United States, the choir went on to perform in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Canada. Everywhere Shchedryk was heard, there were calls for encores. In May 1924, the choir stopped touring.
A concert of the Ukrainian chorus on the stadium “Plaza de Toros” in Mexico on 26 December 1922. Then the singers faced the largest audience in their history and set a world record (32,600 listeners)
Shchedryk was the real hit in our repertoire in all countries for five and a half years
wrote conductor Oleksandr Koshyts in his memoirs
Oleksandr Koshyts in Mexico, 1922
After the tour, Oleksandr Koshyts and some choristers stayed in New York. During the 1930s, they continued to give performances.
Pattern Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk Shchedryk

During one of these concerts, Peter Wilhousky, an American conductor of Ukrainian descent, heard Shchedryk.

At that time he led a school choir in New York and was looking for a new composition to be broadcast over NBC radio.

Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978), American conductor

“I had heard it [Shchedryk] sung by a Ukrainian choir and somehow obtained a manuscript copy. At about that time I needed a short number to fill out a program I was asked to do for the Walter Damrosch Music Appreciation Hour with my high school choir. Since the youngsters would not sing in Ukrainian I had to compose a text in English. I discarded the Ukrainian text about 'shchedryk' — (the barnyard fowl) and instead concentrated on the merry tinkle of the bells which I heard in the music”

from Peter Wilhousky’s letter to the Ukrainian musicologist Roman Savytsky

This is how the swallow changes to the bells, and the Ukrainian spring – to the American Christmas. Although both symbols were depicted on American Christmas cards as early as 1910s.

American Christmas card from 1910-1920s

The popularity of the song grew rapidly. According to Wilhousky, after the radio premiere of Carol of the Bells, he received numerous requests from American music teachers who wanted to receive the music of the song. So in 1936 he published his musical score at the Carl Fischer Music with a title which read: Carol of the Bells. Ukrainian Carol. Words by Peter J. Wilhousky. Music by M. Leontovych.

Fragment of Carol of the Bells sheet music, published by Carl Fischer Music, 1936


From that point on, the Ukrainian Shchedryk began its new life as an integral part of American Christmas culture. Since the early 1940s, it has been performed by numerous American choirs, ensembles, jazz bands and orchestras. Leontovych’s melody is used in the advertising of famous brands and it has become the soundtrack of more than a hundred American films, TV shows and serials.

The most popular of them is perhaps the international blockbuster ‘Home Alone’ (1990), where Carol of the Bells created a wonderful Christmas atmosphere.

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Today, Shchedryk is performed in different languages around the world. The recognizable melody is repeated by children and NBA players alike.

And of course, Shchedryk and its versions are traditionally performed by choirs. The only thing that remains the same is the spirit of Christmas that it conveys.

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a journey