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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.