The Sunday Magazine: Carol of the Bells


Sometimes it seems like the readers of this regular Sunday column have as many questions as the ones from my regular perfume writing. Every year I take this time to write about my favorite Holiday things. For the first four years I have really enjoyed telling the stories of some of my favorite rock and roll Christmas songs. After last year’s column on the song “A Merry Jingle” by The Greedies I received two e-mails asking what my favorite traditional Holiday song was. I not only have one, but it is top of my personal Christmas countdown by a mile. It also has an interesting story and I thought for this Holiday Season I’d tell the story of how the song “Carol of the Bells” came to be.

This is a Christmas song which a lot of people don’t know the actual name of. I’ve heard it called “Sweet Silver Bells” or “Ring, Christmas Bells” or even “Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas”.

“Carol of the Bells” began its life in 1914 as a very different choral piece based on a slightly different time of year. It was a piece commissioned by the Ukrainian Republic Choir conductor, Alexander Koshetz. The song composer, Mykola Leontovych, wrote was called “Schedryk”. It roughly translates to “Little Swallow” and tells the story of the bird entering a house as the harbinger of the spring to come. The four-note pattern which repeats throughout the song comes from Ukrainian folk music. It was part of the Christian celebration of New Year and would fall out of favor as Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union.

It would be almost twenty years later when Peter J. Wilhousky would provide English lyrics to the same melody from Mr. Leontovych. The reason was Mr. Wilhousky wanted to premiere it as part of the NBC Radio Network’s symphony orchestra Holiday Program. He came by the lyrics because the melody reminded him of hand bells. After its radio premiere the song became a staple of the Christmas music rotation.

One reason I like the song as much as I do is how resilient it is to different interpretations. I have included three of them here. Up top is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir giving you the straight choir version. In the middle is a version for drumline as the percussion part of the orchestra gets to shine. The last version is the one most have come to know; the synth-rock version by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I like all of them and more. I counted on my Mega-Holiday playlist and I have fifteen versions of Carol of the Bells. More than any other.

There you have it “Carol of the Bells” is a song that began as a little sparrow in Ukraine to become a Christmas classic in the US. Along with being my favorite traditional Christmas song.

Mark Behnke