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“Carol of the Bells” (also known as the “Ukrainian Bell Carol”) is a choral miniature work originally composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych. Throughout the composition, Leontovych used a four note motif as an ostinato which was taken from an ancient pagan Ukrainian New Year’s chant known in Ukrainian as “Shchedryk” [the Generous One]. The composer created the piece as an assignment in the application for the use of an ostinato for a harmony course he was studying by correspondence. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed choir. Two other variants of the composition; one for woman’s choir and another for children’s choir with piano accompaniment were also created by the composer.
“The Carol of The Bells” was premiered on December 1916 by a choral group made up of students at Kiev University. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall. It was later adapted into English language version by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s. An alternate English version (“Ring, Christmas Bells”) featuring more Nativity-based lyrics, written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947, is also widely performed. Still to this day it is sung world wide near New Year’s Eve and Christmas.
The song is based on a traditional folk chant whose language was thought to have magical properties, because of the manner in which it manipulated the number 3. The original traditional Ukrainian text used a device, known as hemiola, in the rhythm (alternating the accents within each measure from 3/4 to 6/8 and back again). This device however is lost in the English translations and rarely is used in non-Ukrainian performances. The ostinato motif, a repeated four-note pattern within the range of a minor third is thought to be of prehistoric origins with magical implications. It was associated with the coming New Year which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was originally celebrated in April.
With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday the chant originally was associated with became the Feast of Epiphany (also known in Ukrainian as Shchedry vechir). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Schedrivky.