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The story of the Ukrainian song that became a famous global Christmas carol

The story of the Ukrainian song that became a famous global Christmas carol

With the beginning of the Christmas period, the Ukrainian song “Shchedryk,” also known as “Carol of the Bells,” begins to actively waft up from everywhere — from thematic films to concerts. Not by chance, this song by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych is one of the most popular Christmas melodies on the planet.

But what is the hidden origin of “Shchedryk,” and how did it become so popular all around the globe? Read the history of the song in our publication.

The debut of “Shchedryk” by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych took place in December 1916 at Kyiv Philharmonic. The choir was led by the famous conductor Oleksandr Koshyts.

Head of the UNR Directorate and UNR Army Chief Commander Symon Petliura initiated the creation of the Ukrainian Republican Chapel. He has chosen the song as one of the diplomatic tools to gain foreign support in the fight against Bolshevik Russia. 

The goal of Petliura’s “new cultural army” was to end the Russian information blackout in Europe and declare that Ukraine is not Russia and that the Ukrainian people, with their rich national culture, have the right to a distinct cultural and political existence.

Conductor Oleksandr Koshyts added “Shchedryk” to the Ukrainian Republican Chapel’s repertoire in 1919 when preparing for a world tour. And the story of Ukrainian cultural recognition began. 

On May 11, 1919, the National Theater in Prague hosted the first concert. Leontovych continued to improve carol’s melodics, even after it had already established itself as a hallmark for Ukraine in Western Europe. In 1919, he created the latest version of the song.

From 1919 to 1924, the Ukrainian song went on a world tour. The Ukrainian Republican Chapel performed concerts in 17 countries. 

The best concert venues in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Spain, the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Canada — all included “Shchedryk” as one of their most popular performances.

In October 1921, American conductor of Ukrainian descent Peter Vilhovsky visited one of the concerts of the Ukrainian Choir Chapel in the USA. In 1936, he wrote the English version of “Shchedryk,” which he called “Carol of the Bells.” It was first performed in March 1936 in New York at Madison Square Garden during the American Congress of Music Instructors.

The song became a unique musical symbol of Christmas and a soundtrack for hundreds of movies and TV shows. Today, there are more than 1,000 versions and remakes of Shchedryk.

This year marks the 100th anniversary since Shchedryk — a simple folk song turned by Mykola Leontovych into a true world music masterpiece — premiered to astounding success at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Explore more about Shchedryk’s story at Ukrainer in English and Ukraine.ua

Text: Olga Kostiuk

Design: Nadiia Firman

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