Carol of the Bells
"Carol of the Bells" is a popular Christmas carol composed by Mykola Leontovych in 1904 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on a folk chant known in Ukrainian as "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, rock, and pop. The piece has also been featured in films, television shows, and parodies.
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The song is based on a traditional folk chant. It was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was originally celebrated with the coming of spring in April. (This explains why the original Ukrainian text speaks about a swallow returning and lambs being born.)
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 original Ukrainian text tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful and bountiful year that the family will have. The title is derived from the Ukrainian word for "bountiful". The period for the birth of animals and the return of swallows to Ukraine, however, does not correspond to the current calendar season of winter.
Composition and translation
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. A copyrighted English text was created by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s, and since then it has been performed and sung during the Christmas season. Its initial popularity stemmed largely from Wilhousky's ability to perform it to a wide audience in his role as arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, trained especially for Arturo Toscanini. The song would later be assisted to further popularity by featuring in television advertisements for champagne. An alternate English version ("Ring, Christmas Bells") featuring more Nativity-based lyrics, written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947, is also common.
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.
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(In chronological order)
- 1946 The 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.
- 1978 Richard Carpenter played piano in an orchestral version arranged by Peter Knight on The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait album released in October 1978.
- 1981 Kenny Rogers performed the song on his Christmas album. It was re-released in 1985.
- 1988 Mannheim Steamroller recorded a prog-rock version on their second Christmas studio album A Fresh Aire Christmas. The track has become one of the group's best-selling digital tracks.
- 1990 Wynton Marsalis recorded a syncopated, minor-key version on the album Crescent City Christmas Card with the role of the bells carried by brass.
- 1995 Savatage and side project The Trans-Siberian Orchestra recorded "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)" which includes the song.
- 1997 John Tesh charted the song. Billboard Adult Contemporary survey, 1997.
- 2001 Destiny's Child Recorded an a capella rendition of the song, which they called the "Opera of the Bells", for their album 8 Days of Christmas.
- 2005 Nox Arcana performed this song on their album Winter's Knight that reached No. 8 on the Billboard Charts the following year.
- 2008 Irish group Celtic Woman recorded this song twice, in 2006 for their album Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration and in 2008 for their album Celtic Woman: A Celtic Family Christmas.
- 2010 Hugo Ferreira of the American rock band Tantric recorded and released as a single.
- 2012 August Burns Red performed an instrumental version of this song on August Burns Red Presents: Sleddin' Hill.
- 2012 Pentatonix covered the song on PTXmas, the sixth highest selling Christmas album of 2013
- 2014 LeAnn Rimes included her rendition of the song on her album One Christmas: Chapter 1.
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 the December 12, 1990, episode of Saturday Night Live purported to be an advertisement for the musical album A Dysfunctional Family Christmas. This included a parody of "Carol of the Bells" featuring Dana Carvey singing the lyrics "Leave me alone, please go away...".
- The song appears in Disney's 1994 film The Santa Clause. A group of people are singing it near the opening of the film.
- 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.[better source needed]
- Community had it featured in the end tag, in their 2011 Christmas special "Regional Holiday Music", with the heads of the Dean, Chang, Starburns, Magnitude and Leonard singing the song.
- The Unholy Night episode (originally aired on December 5, 2012) of the American Horror Story TV series has a piano version of Carol of the Bells, played by Michael SIlverman 
- A version of the song appears in the video game Batman: Arkham Origins and serves as a theme of sorts for Joker.
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