Many people know that “Carol of the Bells” is one of the most popular Christmas carols, especially among handbell musicians. But not many people know the story behind its writing.

by Frances Corbin

Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Overtones

Born in 1877 into the family of a Ukrainian village priest, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, with his brother, Alexander, and sisters, Maria and Helen, always sang and played various musical instruments while growing up. At age 21, Mykola (which is Nicholas in English) organized an amateur symphony orchestra. During the revolutionary events of 1905, he organized a choir of workers which performed at demonstrations against the Russian monarchy. This drew the attention of the Russian police, so he fled and began teaching singing, math, and geography in a school for the daughters of village priests. He purchased the musical instruments with his own money to organize a school orchestra.

Leontovych composed many folk songs and religious works and worked and studied in relative obscurity until 1916, when he was commissioned by Alexander Koshetz, director of the famous Ukrainian Republican Capella Choir, to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies for an upcoming concert. Using a haunting four-note melody, and combining it with a tune he found in an anthology of folk melodies, he used the two melodic parts simultaneously and wrote a completely new work for choir—“Shchedryk,” which means bountiful. This piece made him famous.

“Shchedryk” tells about a swallow flying into the house of a poor farmer and telling him that his sheep had given birth to new lambs, that his wheat harvest would be bountiful, and that he would have a beautiful wife. This new composition was performed at a time when there was intense political and social upheaval in Ukraine. In 1919 Koshetz’s choir toured Europe and North and South America, performing over 1,000 concerts. The group performed to a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921, the year before Ukraine officially became part of the USSR. By then Leontovych was dead—but more about that later.
When the American composer and conductor Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s choral work, it reminded him of ringing bells, so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery for his choir.

When the American composer and conductor Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s choral work, it reminded him of ringing bells, so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery for his choir. What we have come to know as “Carol of the Bells” is somewhat unusual among Christmas carols for its minor key, fast pace, and brevity.

In 1973, Wilhousky wrote, “I had heard it (“Schedryk”) sung by a Ukrainian choir and somehow obtained a manuscript copy. I needed a short number to fill out a program I was asked to do with my high school choir on NBC radio. Since the youngsters would not be singing in Ukrainian, I had to compose a text in English. I discarded the Ukrainian text about the barnyard fowl (the swallow) and concentrated on the merry tinkle of the bells which I heard in the music. After the broadcast, many schools and colleges wrote in asking where they could obtain printed copies. Some of my friends urged me to submit the number to a publisher—which I did—namely G. Schirmer. My manuscript was returned after two months with regrets. A week or so later, a salesman from Carl Fischer came to visit me and said that his company would like to have my music in its catalogue and asked if I had any compositions or arrangements they could publish. I took out the rejected manuscript of “Carol of the Bells” and told him how well it had been received. He took the copy and phoned me the next day saying that they would print it. It has been a best seller ever since; there was no need to push it; it just grew.” The 1936 printing by Fischer made “Carol of the Bells” into a song “heard round the world,” and the song has more rearrangements and recordings than any other work of Ukrainian origin. (Note: Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics and published the song despite the fact that the work had been published almost two decades earlier in Soviet Ukraine.)
As for the original composer of the melody, Mykola Leontovych— he was on his way to visit his father on the last day of the year in 1920. Travel was slowed by heavy snow, so he did not arrive on the agreed upon date. The day after his arrival, he was improvising on the piano, when a horse-drawn cart pulled up in the yard of his father’s straw roof house, and the two occupants asked to spend the night. (Note: this was not unusual in those days in Ukraine.) The two guests, along with the family, sat down to eat, and all noticed that one of the guests (who had introduced himself as Gryshchenko, an agent looking for bandits, saying that “bandits are much afraid of me”) seemed to be “evaluating” the articles in the house. He told them that he was “working hard on his land,” but his hands were not the calloused hands of a farmer. He kept looking out the windows and when asked about this, replied “People like I am are under constant observation. I feel better on a dark night when people cannot see inside the house.” Leontovych replied, “But no one knows who will be alive tomorrow.” Shortly, they began getting ready to sleep, removing outer clothes and sleeping in underclothes, as was the custom. Gryshchenko unfastened his belt with a weapon on it and put it close to his head. Then Leontovych’s father blew out the lamp, and the house was quiet and dark.
Close to morning, a gun shot was heard in the quietness of the night. Leontovych’s father (Dmytro) jumped up and saw his son sitting on his bed and asking, “Father, what was the explosion?” Instantly he fell back on his pillow. Then Dmytro noticed Gryschenko, dressed only in his underclothes and barefooted, standing by Leontovych’s bed, with gun in hand. Gryschenko grabbed Dmytro by the neck and dragged him into the kitchen. He commanded the driver of the horse cart which had brought them there to tie up Dmytro and the ladies, then gave the gun to the driver and told him to guard the family. The driver’s hands were shaking so violently that he could not hold the gun.
Meanwhile Gryshchenko slowly dressed himself in Leontovych’s clothing and searched in the dresser for coins, then emptied Leontovych’s wallet. Then he asked the family, “Where do you keep the gold?” When they replied that they had no gold, he demanded that they show him their hands so he could remove rings, but there were no rings. He gathered all the clothes he could find and fled the house.
Only then did Dmytro come to his senses and check on his badly wounded son. There was blood on the pillow, blood on the mattress, and blood dropping onto the floor. Leontovych spoke, “I am dying.” He asked for water but did not have the strength to drink it. It was 8 o’clock on the morning of January 20, 1921, when Leontovych breathed his last. The next day his wife and daughter arrived in another snowstorm, Leontovych was put into a plain wooden casket, and his funeral was held the same afternoon.
What happened to Gryshchenko? He broke into a house in a local Jewish community. He refused to come out of the house and fired several shots into the door, wounding one militia man before escaping. He continued to rob people for a short time until he was killed in a fight by a man in whose house he had intended to spend the night.
After the funeral, Leontovych’s wife, Claudia, found tickets for travel overseas. Some people think that the reason Leontovych was killed was to stop him from emigrating. He was 43.
Leontovych could not have known that his melody about a bird singing to a farmer would become such a well known Christmas melody. The song has become associated with Christmas because of its references to silver bells, caroling and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.” The carol has been has been published in a variety of arrangements and recorded by many types of musical groups. It is a favorite among handbell choirs, and there are at least 11 different published arrangements for handbells.