Carol of the Bells
"Carol of the Bells" is a popular Christmas carol composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on a Ukrainian folk chant called "Shchedryk". Wilhousky's lyrics are copyrighted, although the original musical composition is not.
The song is recognized by a four-note ostinato motif (see image to the right). It has been arranged many times for different genres, styles of singing and settings and has been covered by artists and groups of many genres: classical, metal, jazz, country music, rock, and pop. The piece has also been featured in films, television shows, and parodies.
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Conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir Oleksander Koshyts (also spelled Alexander Koshetz) commissioned Leontovych to create the song based on traditional Ukrainian folk chants, and the resulting new work for choir, "Shchedryk", was based on four notes Leontovych found in an anthology.
The original folk story related in the song was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated with the coming of spring in April. The original Ukrainian title translates to "the generous one" or is perhaps derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful (shchedryj), and tells a tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.
With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally associated became Malanka (Ukrainian: Щедрий вечір Shchedry vechir), the eve of the Julian New Year (the night of 13–14 January in the Gregorian calendar). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Shchedrivky.
The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in the Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir. Two other settings of the composition were also created by Leontovych: one for women's choir (unaccompanied) and another for children's choir with piano accompaniment. These are rarely performed or recorded.
English lyric versions
Wilhousky rearranged the melody for orchestra with new lyrics for NBC radio network's symphony orchestra, centered around the theme of bells because the melody reminded him of hand bells, which begins "Hark! How the bells". It was first aired during the Great Depression, and Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936 and also published the song, despite the song having been published almost two decades earlier in the Soviet Ukraine. Its initial popularity stemmed largely from Wilhousky's ability to reach a wide audience as his role as arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is now strongly associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics, which reference bells, caroling, and the line "merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas".
An alternate English version, "Ring, Christmas Bells", featuring Nativity-based lyrics was written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947. Two other versions exist by anonymous writers: one from 1957 titled "Come Dance and Sing" and one from 1972 that begins "Hark to the bells".
American recordings by various artists began to surface on the radio in the 1940s. The song gained further popularity when it was featured in television advertisements for champagne in the 1970s by French a cappella group the Swingle Singers. "Carol of the Bells" has been recorded into over 150 versions and re-arrangements for varying vocal and instrumental compositions.
(In chronological order)
- 1946The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded it that year, and later re-recorded it in stereo. Both the Chorale and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, which Robert Shaw conducted from 1967 until 1988, and on special occasions until his death in 1999, performed it many times in live concert.[ – citation needed]
- 1955The Voices of Christmas, a singing group featuring, among others, Margaret and Barbara Whiting, Sonny Burke and Gary Crosby, sang the song for a CBS radio broadcast transmitted on Christmas Eve, which was edited to be released the following year on the Bing Crosby album A Christmas Sing with Bing around the World. – 
- 1978Richard Carpenter played piano in an orchestral version arranged by Peter Knight on The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait album released in October. – 
- 1988Mannheim Steamroller recorded a prog-rock version on their second Christmas studio album A Fresh Aire Christmas, which has sold over 6 million copies in the U.S., making it one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. – 
- 1990Wynton Marsalis recorded a syncopated, minor-key version on the album Crescent City Christmas Card with the role of the bells carried by brass. – 
- 1995Savatage recorded "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", an instrumental, heavy-metal medley of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells". The song became the number 1 requested song on the influential New York station WPLJ, which led to the band gaining label support to form Trans-Siberian Orchestra and create a new album based on the song. – 
- 2005Nox Arcana performed this song on their album Winter's Knight that reached No. 8 on the Billboard Charts the following year. – 
- 2012Metal band August Burns Red's "breakdown-infused" version of the song was used in a Christmas-themed promotional ad for Frank Miller's film The Spirit, although the song did not appear in the film. – 
- 2012Pentatonix covered the song their album PTXmas, one of the highest selling Christmas albums of 2013. – 
- 2013Marillion released an extended version for charity. – 
- 2014LeAnn Rimes included her rendition of the song on her album One Christmas: Chapter 1 and also performed the song for CMA Country Christmas. – 
Film, television, parodies, and other media
- The song appears in the 1990 20th Century Fox film Home Alone as arranged by John Williams.
- A skit on the December 12, 1990 episode of Saturday Night Live included an advertisement for the musical album A Dysfunctional Family Christmas. "Carol of the Bells" was parodied by Dana Carvey with the lyrics "Leave me alone, please go away...".
- The song appears in Disney's 1994 film The Santa Clause as a group of carolers are singing the song during the film's opening.
- An a cappella rendition of the song, performed by the character Mr. Mackey, was featured on the episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" from South Park's third season.
- The Muppets' 2009 parody of the song climaxes with a large bell (set up by Animal) falling on the increasingly frenetic Beaker, which quickly became a viral video that Christmas season.
- Community featured the song in the end tag of their 2011 Christmas special "Regional Holiday Music", with the heads of the Dean, Chang, Starburns, Magnitude and Leonard singing along.
- The Unholy Night episode (originally aired on December 5, 2012) of the American Horror Story TV series includes a piano version, played by Michael Silverman.
- The song serves as a theme of sorts for the Joker in the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins.
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