Thursday, December 14, 2006

G.I.F.T. Challenge 2006, part 3

I have recovered a book from my bookshelves that I will be reading and commenting on as part 4, but for part 3, there have been a few thoughts. My first thought was to go and try a Second Cup Eggnog Latte. My brother-in-law looks forward to their reappearance on the menu every year at this time! I have not had the pleasure of trying one yet, mostly because I'm not much of a coffee drinker. However, I couldn't quite find a G.I.F.T. heading for that to fall under. There is no "Christmas food and drink" category. To that end, I refocussed on the "Christmas Music" category. What to do? If I go to the library, likely all their Christmas music will be gone, and the CBC isn't consistently playing Christmas music 24/7 yet. Then I sat back to think about Christmas music. My absolute favourite song of the season is Carol of the Bells. I've had a thought to collect various versions of the song and make a whole Christmas CD of them. I have heard techno, orchestral, acapella, jazz, and variations on the theme. But what do I know about the song? Hmm... I don't even know the words! So, it was off to Google. Let me share with you what I learned today about my favourite carol.

Carol of the Bells as we know it today is a fairly recent creation. However, the melody dates back to a folk song of Ukraine. It is a winter well-wishing song, generally sung on New Year's Eve of the Julian calendar (January 13 on ours), wishing prosperity for the hearer in the new year. In fact, the original folk song is considered out of place if performed at Christmas time!

In 1916, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich was contracted by a choir master to create a choral piece of Ukrainian folk songs. Leontovich found the song in a book, and adapted it and its lyrics to new piece entitled Shchedryk, meaning "bountiful." The new lyrics that Leontovich adapted from the original folk song tell of a swallow who flies into the eaves of a family's household, and proclaiming the prosperous year they will have. The choir for whom the piece was composed then toured North and South America in 1919 and after, promoting Ukrainian culture, and performing Shchedryk for a multitude of audiences.

On 5 October 1921, the choir performed Shchedryk for the first time in the United States, to a sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall. Peter Wilhousky, an American choir director, heard the work, and it reminded him of bells. He sat down and wrote out an English set of lyrics for the work, for use with his own choir. The tune and lyrics were copyrighted in 1936, despite being published in the Ukraine 20 years before, and Wilhousky's choirs began to perform the song during the Christmas season in America. The song was immediately associated with Christmas in North America, due to lyrics like, well, "merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas." Other sets of lyrics have been written for the tune, as well. In 1947, M.L. Holman wrote "Ring, Christmas Bells," and anonymous lyrics in 1957 ("Come, dance and sing") and 1972 ("Carol of the Bells," differentiated from the original by the first line: "Hark! How the bells, sweet silver bells" vs. "Hark to the bells! Hark to the bells!") also used the same melody. All four, however, continue with the Christmas theme.

There is also an erroneous report out there that the song is based on an old Slavic legend that all the bells in the world rang out at the birth of Jesus. While a nice thought, the folk song puts paid to this version of the song's origin.

I find it fascinating that, in the Ukraine, both the original folk song and Shchedryk remain New Year's songs, and cannot be performed around Christmas without being told by the listeners that it's not the right time for the piece, but here in North America, the tune remains indelibly tied to Christmas. Unlike Greensleeves, which depending on the lyrics chosen can be both a Christmas and an every-other-day song, this one is seasonal, despite its varied origins. What a wonderful thing to learn about my favourite carol!

I will leave you with Wilhousky's lyrics. Merry Christmas!

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 everywhere
filling the air

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o'er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

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 every home

Ding dong ding... dong!


Carl V.

Nice post! I really like Carol of the Bells. I remember performing it in junior high and loving how we all sounded together. When done well it is a really beautiful song.

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