Carol of the Bells and the hard-to-pronounce word Shchedryk – what do they have in common? Both are based on one simple four-note Ukrainian motif, easily recognizable all over the world.
Its melody fascinated millions of people a century ago and continues to be a beloved song of Christmas time today.
Where did it come from, and why do most of us know it as Carol of the Bells? Read about its history and learn the original lyrics (with English translation) in our article!
The history of Carol of the Bells
Nobody knows when the song was created, but it was certainly more than one century ago. The four notes (often B♭, A, B♭, and G) were the basis of a famous Ukrainian folklore song – Щедрик /Shchedryk/.
It was part of ritual songs, common since the pagan times – щедрiвки /shchedrivky/. People in Ukraine sang them at the beginning of the year (at that time – March) when swallows returned home.
After the conversion to Christianity in the late 10th century, щедрiвки became part of the Christmas cycle along with another type of winter ritual songs – колядки /koliadkyi/. In Christian traditions, they serve as carols, praising the birth of Jesus Christ.
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While колядки are sung from Christmas to Epiphany (7-19 January), щедрiвки are mostly associated with the New Year’s Eve – Щедрий Вечiр (the Generous Evening) or Маланка /Malanka/, celebrated on January 13 under the Julian calendar. As opposed to колядки, щедрiвки praise the head of the household and his family, wishing good harvest and prosperity.
Learn about Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Ukraine in our collection of Ukrainian Lessons Podcast and 5 Minute Ukrainian episodes!
From villages to European concert halls
In the early 20th century, Shchedryk got a second wind thanks to a famous Ukrainian composer Микола Леонтович /Mykola Leontovych/. He took the main folklore melody and elaborated it into a four-voice cappella.
The premiere of Shchedryk’s choir arrangement was in the midst of World War 1, in 1916, under the lead of the conductor Олександр Кошиць /Oleksandr Koshyts/, who later played a decisive role in the global promotion of this song.
WWI brought about the demise of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, opening the opportunity for Ukrainians to seek independence. The Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) was established in Ukrainian lands formerly controlled by Russia. Unfortunately, political and military instability, attacks on multiple fronts, and a fragile position in international affairs made preserving the state’s independence extremely challenging.
In 1919, Симон Петлюра /Symon Petliura/, the Head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, came up with an idea to use cultural diplomacy to promote Ukraine and its independence in Europe. It was especially crucial before the Paris peace conference (1919-1920), which was about to define the post-war world order.
Curious to find out more about the history of Ukraine? Ukrainian Lessons Podcast has an insightful short history course in English and intermediate Ukrainian – listen on the website or on your favorite podcast app!
Impressed by the performance of Ukrainian folk melodies by Oleksandr Koshyts, Symon Petliura established the Ukrainian Republican Capella – a state-funded choir for promoting Ukrainian music and culture abroad. In just several days, Koshyts selected 113 singers and musicians for the European tournée in the spring of 1919.
The first tournée destination was Czechoslovakia, followed by concerts in Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, and Spain in 1919-1920. Capella’s performances were accompanied by standing ovations and praises from the foreign press and celebrities like Isadora Duncan and Elisabeth of Bavaria.
Shchedryk was always a signature masterpiece, admired all over Europe. The Ukrainian Republican Capella often finished their concerts with this song, achieving a profound effect on the audience. The melody of Shchedryk became associated with vivid Ukrainian culture, the national revival, and Ukraine’s aspirations for independence.
Are you also inspired by Ukrainian music as the audience was more than 100 years ago? Check out what folk songs are popular with Ukrainians and foreigners these days in our popular blog post!
A path to Carol of the Bells in America
Though the success of Ukrainian cultural diplomacy was considerable, it didn’t save the Ukrainian state. The unfavorable situation in international affairs, political turbulence, and attacks by the Bolsheviks, the White Guard, and the Polish troops (the infamous Ukrainian Death Triangle) forced the emigration of Ukrainian political leaders and the internment of the Ukrainian army.
Due to the lack of funding, the Ukrainian Republican Capella lost its status as a state institution and was reorganized into the “Ukrainian National Choir.” Nonetheless, it continued promoting Ukrainian culture – from 1922 to 1924, the choir conducted around 400 concerts in the US, Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Cuba.
The premiere of Shchedryk in America took place in the world-renowned Carnegie Hall. The performance was an international sensation, followed by various song arrangements by famous composers, notably George Gershwin and Robert Nathaniel Dett. From the 1920s to these days, Shchedryk‘s interpretations appeared in many music styles all over the world.
Unfortunately, even Ukrainian cultural aspirations were oppressed in many ways. The occupation of Ukraine by Bolsheviks in the early 1920s and their repressions of Ukrainian political and cultural activists made practically impossible the development of authentic culture in Ukraine. Shchedryk’s composer, Mykola Leontovych, was killed in front of his house by a чекiст /chekist/ (Russian secret service agent), and he was not alone.
Even abroad, there was cultural appropriation of Ukrainian culture by Russians. In view of Russian culture’s popularity and lack of knowledge about Ukraine, impresarios and composers gladly labeled Shchedryk as part of Russian folklore in recordings, concerts, and scores publications. It led to a gradual erosion of Shchedryk being associated with Ukrainian culture.
In these circumstances, the conditions were prime for Carol of the Bells to be born. After the first 1933 English version called “The Bluebirds,” Peter Wilhousky, an American conductor of Ukrainian descent, wrote the world-famous interpretation of Shchedryk in 1936 for the performance of his school choir on American NBC Radio. In the lyrics, he replaced the swallow metaphor with Christmas bells that the song melody reminded him of. Unfortunately, the scores mentioned the motif as part of Russian, not Ukrainian folklore.
This recording and later publications brought the century-long fame for Carol of the Bells. But was it part of Ukrainian heritage and music culture? Rather not. The song “lived” its independent life without decent reference to Ukraine for many decades. Only in recent years, Ukrainians began to reclaim Shchedryk as Carol of the Bells predecessor.
Still, Carol of the Bells’ melody is an integral part of local Christmas celebrations worldwide. This tune has become dear and cherished by many of us. And now, you know where it came from and why it is so important for Ukrainians.
Ukrainian lyrics and English translation of Carol of the Bells
Would you like to try to sing Carol of the Bells in Ukrainian? See its original lyrics below – I also prepared translations to make it easier for you!
Before that, let’s listen to some of the most popular modern performances of this song – choose your favorite and sing along!
Check out Ukrainian lyrics and English translations of щедрівка «Ой сивая та і зозуленька» to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Ukrainian Old New Year!
Note that accents in the song are radically different from those in standard Ukrainian. For the sake of the rhythm, many words have two accented vowels, which is not common in everyday speech.
Also, the term щедрик has several meanings – a Bountiful (Generous) Evening, a shortened version of the song type щедрiвка, and a bird species.
Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка,
Стала собі щебетати,
“Вийди, вийди, господарю,
Подивися на кошару,
Там овечки покотились,
А ягнички народились,
В тебе товар весь хороший,
Будеш мати мірку грошей,
Хоч не гроші, то полова —
В тебе жінка чорноброва“.
Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка,
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A swallow has flown,
It began to twitter,
And call the master:
“Come out, come out, O Master,
Take a look at the sheep pen,
There the ewes have given birth,
And the lambkins have been born,
All your goods are great,
And you will be rich
Though not money, it is chaff —
You have a dark-eyebrowed wife
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A swallow has flown.
Thank you for reading until the end of the article! I hope the history and lyrics of the Ukrainian Carol of the Bells were a source of inspiration and discoveries for you!
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