This melody has become a real anthem of Christmas, without which no holiday playlist can do. ‘Carol of the Bells’ sounded in the legendary film ‘Home Alone’ and became the soundtrack to dozens of TV series and commercials. However, only now the world is beginning to learn that the history of the musical masterpiece started with the Ukrainian ‘Shchedryk’. One hundred years ago, the unique arrangement by Mykola Leontovych was presented to Europe and America by the choir of Oleksandr Koshyts.
How did ‘Shchedryk’ become a cultural weapon of the Ukrainian People’s Republic? What role did the then Ukrainian leader Simon Petliura play in this? And what tragic fate befell the author of the musical symbol of Christmas, Mykola Leontovych? Ukrainian Moment collected the most interesting facts.
‘Shchedryk:’ from folk song to world-famous melody
It is believed that ‘Shchedryk’ originates from pagan times. Back then, the New Year was celebrated in spring, which is why the song refers to the arrival of swallows.
The title of the song is interesting. ‘Shchedryk’ comes from the Ukrainian word shchedrist’, which translates as generosity or wealth.
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych was always interested in folklore. This artist did not study at famous conservatories but still got a thorough musical education at the Kamianets-Podilsky Theological Orthodox Seminary. He perfectly mastered the theory of choral music and learned to play the violin, piano and several wind instruments. After graduating from the seminary, Leontovych did not follow his father’s fate and did not become a priest. The young man chose the path of a professional musician, composer and teacher.
During one of the local history expeditions, Mykola came across the words and melody of ‘Shchedryk.’ The composer liked the folk song so much that he worked on its arrangement almost all his life.
The general public became aware of the fourth version of ‘Shchedryk.’ The student choir of Kyiv University, under the direction of Mykola Leontovych himself, first performed it. It happened at the end of December 1916. After the premiere of ‘Shchedryk,’ music critics stated that the arrangement can be called an independent musical work with folk motifs.
Cultural diplomacy ahead of time. How ‘Shchedryk’ sounded to the whole world
On January 22, 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic proclaimed its independence. However, the state found itself in a difficult situation. Ukrainians had to fight off the Russian Bolsheviks and Denikin’s army, which fought for the ideals of ‘Great Russia.’
At that time, Ukrainian independence was recognised only by the states defeated in World War I. Embassies of the UPR functioned in Turkey, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria and Finland.
Therefore, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army Symon Petliura decided to acquaint the world with Ukrainian culture. He hoped to enlist the support of other countries.
‘We entered the arena of history when the whole world did not know what Ukraine was. No one wanted to recognise it as an independent state; no one considered our people a separate nation. With a united struggle, stubborn and uncompromising, we showed the world that Ukraine exists, that its people live and fight for their rights, for their freedom and state independence,’ this is how Petliura himself described that period of Ukrainian history in one of his speeches.
It is not surprising that this politician took up the creation of the Ukrainian Republican Chapel. In the past, Simon worked as a journalist, theatre critic, and publicist. Petliura was acquainted with the talented Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko and the iconic Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. The works of Taras Shevchenko and Ukrainian historical literature shaped his worldview. The Ukrainian leader understood that song could also be a weapon and hoped that the musical mission led by Oleksandr Koshyts would help to establish Ukraine’s independence. Later, the European press would write about Petliura as ‘the Commander-in-Chief in love with art.’
On February 5, 1919, Kyiv was occupied by the Bolsheviks. Almost at the last moment before this fatal event, the Chapel was evacuated to Kamianets-Podilskyi. In a few months, the choir was completed and sent to Europe. Leontovych’s ‘Shchedryk’ became one of the main songs of the concert program. It became a hit that stirred Europe.
The European premiere of ‘Shchedryk’ took place in Prague. ‘Ukrainians came and won. Unfortunately, for too long, we did not know about them and severely offended them when we unconsciously and without information united them against their will into one whole with the Russian people. It is our desire for a ‘great and indivisible Russia’ that is a weak argument against nature, against the will and feelings of the entire Ukrainian people, for whom independence, as well as for us, is everything,’ this is how musicologists Yaroslav Krzhichka spoke about Ukrainians.
But the leading destination of the Republican Chapel remained Paris. The Peace Conference was held there, the main task of which was to form a new political reality after World War І. Ukrainian artists sought to convince the Entente leaders of the existence of Ukraine.
The local press exploded with rave reviews. ‘No choir – neither French nor foreign – has ever presented anything like this here,’ wrote Le Nouvelliste.
However, Russian provocateurs wanted to disrupt the event. The choir conductor Oleksandr Koshyts wrote: ‘It seems that the Muscovites were preparing a scandal for us. There was supposed to be shouting and whistling during our anthem. Then, a speaker was supposed to stand up and, addressing the audience, ask them to leave the hall because the concert was being given by Russian separatists, enemies of the ‘one indivisible,’ hence enemies of France.’ However, the French police managed to prevent the conflict.
According to the founder of the Leontovych Institute, Tina Peresunko, during 1919–2021, the Ukrainian Republican Chapel visited 45 cities in 10 countries. The choir gave about 200 concerts and received more than 600 reviews.
The researcher emphasises that ‘Shchedryk’ was known in the world long before the appearance of its English version ‘Carol of the Bells.’ The text of the Ukrainian hit was translated into French by Belgian writer Franz Hellens, a four-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In his ‘Diary,’ Oleksandr Koshyts wrote about how warmly the Belgian Queen Elizabeth spoke about the choir’s concerts: ‘All my sympathies are on the side of your people, I know how hard they are struggling for their freedom… But we monarchs are slaves of politics.’
‘Their songs are dominated by strength, joy, life and humour — this is what most characterises their identity… And the typical ‘Shchedryk,’ perfectly sung, was demanded as an encore,’ this is how the performance of the Ukrainian choir was mentioned in the Dutch newspaper ‘Algemein Handesblat.’
‘Shchedryk’ in exile
Despite the successful tours of the Republican Chapel and the enthusiastic response of the European public, the Ukrainian People’s Republic did not receive political support and military assistance. Therefore, the Russian Bolsheviks were able to occupy most of the territory of Ukraine in 1921.
The times of terror, persecution and destruction of the Ukrainian intelligentsia began. The enemy bullet did not spare Mykola Leontovych. On January 23, 1921, he was shot by the Chekist Afanasii Hryshchenko. The tragic event occurred in Leontovych’s parental home in the village of Markivka, Vinnytsia region. The murderer robbed the musician’s house, taking even the composer’s boots. Thus the life of the author of the legendary melody ‘Shchedryk’ ended. Mykola Leontovych was only 43.
The Ukrainian Republican Chapel lost its homeland. The artists changed the group’s name to the Ukrainian National Choir, and at the invitation of the American impresario Max Rabinoff arrived in New York in late September 1922.
As Tina Peresunko writes in her book ‘Cultural Diplomacy of Simon Petliura:’ ‘The global march of Ukrainian culture is put on commercial rails and continues with no less resonance: from 1922 to 1924, the choir gave about 400 concerts in North and South America. In the United States of America, Ukrainians performed about 200 concerts in 36 states in more than 115 cities.’
The choir’s concert at Carnegie Hall in New York will forever remain a landmark for Ukrainians and the world. On October 5, 1922, the premiere of ‘Shchedryk’ in the United States took place there.
In 1936, American musician of Ukrainian origin Peter Wilhousky translated the text of ‘Shchedryk’ into English. This is how ‘Carol of the Bells’ appeared. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine Christmas without this song.
And what happened to the main initiator of the Ukrainian musical mission Simon Petliura? He was killed by seven bullets in the chest in May 1926 in Paris. The crime was committed by Samuel Schwarzbard, who, according to historians, was associated with the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR.
The figure of Petliura was demonised as much as possible in Soviet times. ‘It is our responsibility to return the memory of him to the modern generation,’ Tina Peresunko emphasises.
Despite his successful career abroad, conductor Oleksandr Koshyts dreamed of returning to Ukraine. He wrote to his friends, ‘My only hope that keeps me on earth and gives me strength to live is to be at home before I die, to see my dear friends, my dear Kyiv, my Ukraine.’
However, his candidacy for return to his homeland was not approved. Perhaps it was a gift of fate because Ukraine was swept by a wave of red terror in the 30s of the twentieth century. There was a mass extermination of artists. The Ukrainian intellectuals killed by the Soviet regime were called the Executed Renaissance.
Ukrainians who spent 70 years under Soviet occupation did not even realise how successfully cultural diplomacy represented Ukrainian art worldwide. Only in the times of Independence these pages of history were opened and read without the ideological colouring of the Soviet Union.
Ukrainian cultural diplomacy nowadays
The modern war in Ukraine resonates with the events of a century ago. Then we also fought against Russia but found ourselves alone with the enemy. Today the world unitedly supports Ukraine, provides military assistance, and imposes sanctions against the aggressor. Ukrainians will continue to develop cultural diplomacy. It is symbolic that in 2022 we celebrate 100 years since the Ukrainian ‘Shchedryk’ was performed on the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York. On December 5, this bright Ukrainian melody again gathered the world’s applause and filled hearts with hope for Victory.
Back in 1923, Brazilian writer Henrique Coelho Neto, inspired by the performance of the Ukrainian National Choir, wrote words that are still relevant today: ‘Sing, captive Ukraine, sing, chirpy! The spring you are waiting for will come.’
Ukrainian free spring is definitely coming.