Carol of the Bells: A History

Carol of the Bells Famous Four-Note Motif
Carol of the Bells Famous Four-Note Motif

One of the most recognizable Christmas tunes of all time is Carol of the Bells. However, the signature four-note melody, appropriately bell-like in sound and movement, has some surprising origins.

Believe it or not, Carol of the Bells was not originally a Christmas song at all. Based on folk music, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wrote the original version called Shchedryk (“Bountiful Evening”) in 1916 for a choral commission.

Shchedryk spoke of the coming new year, which (due to pre-Christian Ukraine) happened in April with the beginning of spring. The song tells a story of a little swallow flying into a house to proclaim glad spring tidings and a bountiful new year. Here is an English translation of the original words:

Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka [New Year’s carol];
A little swallow flew [into the household]
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
“Come out, come out, O master [of the household],
look at the sheep pen,
there the ewes have stumbled
and the lambkins have been born
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, [by selling them].

If not money, then chaff: [from all the grain you will harvest]
you have a dark-eyebrowed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
A little swallow flew.

Check out a choral arrangement of Shchedryk:

Then came American Peter J. Wilhousky a few years later. Upon hearing the melody, he thought the four-note motif sounded like bells – so he wrote some new lyrics:

Hark! how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say,
“Throw cares away.”
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold

Ding, dong, ding, dong
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling
One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
From ev’rywhere
Filling the air

O how happy are their tones
Gaily they ring
While people sing
Songs of good cheer
Christmas is here
Merry, merry, merry, merry christmas
Merry, merry, merry, merry christmas

On, on they send
On without end
Their joyful tone
To ev’ry home

Ding, dong, ding, dong.

Because Wilhousky was a symphonic arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, his arrangement aired on the radio during the Great Depression and resonated with listeners everywhere. Check out more information here.

Carol of the Bells Christmas

Carol of the Bells Christmas Piano Music


4 Comments Add yours

  1. melphant says:

    I love Carol of the bells. I don’t know the story it’s a good story

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you like it! It’s a wonderful song.


      1. melphant says:

        It really is and it has a great story

        Liked by 1 person

  2. melphant says:

    Will u be nice and follow me?


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