The Little Swallow aka Shchedryk aka Carol of the Bells: The Story Behind Our Classic Christmas Carols

Mykola Leontovych, the original composer of “Shchedryk”

In 1916, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych arranged the music to go with a traditional shchedrivka (or New Year’s song) called “Shchedryk.” Shchedrivka are a class of songs in Ukrainian in the same way that carols are a class of songs in English. When Leontovych arranged his music for “Shchedryk”, he helped to create a song about a swallow that flew into the windows of those who toiled in the fields as a sign that their harvest would be bountiful in the coming year. In Ukraine, traditional songs to welcome in the New Year and to wish everyone health, happiness and success are as integral a part of that country’s culture as Christmas carols are in English speaking countries. “Shchedryk” was very well received when it was released due in large part to the repetitive nature of the lyrical structure. In time, the song became so successful that various choral groups and even whole orchestras began traveling the globe, performing all manner of shchedrivka for adoring western audiences but the most popular song was always “Shchedryk”.

In English, “Shchedryk” translates as “The Little Swallow”. That was what it was known as until 1937, when a man named Peter J. Wilhousky took in a performance at Carnegie Hall by the Ukrainian National Chorus. Wilhousky was able to write out a copy of the musical arrangement of “Shchedryk”. With that in hand, Wilhousky created new lyrics and then applied for a copyright on a new song that he called “Carol of the Bells”. As many of you know, “Carol of the Bells” has gone on to become one of the most beloved carols performed during the Holiday season. As was the case with “Shchedryk”, “Carol of the Bells” benefits from a repetitive lyrical structure that boasts lines such as

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic

One of the great things about music, in general, is that it often has the power to stir souls and to comfort troubled minds. There are many instances throughout history of people finding themselves on the wrong end of bloody battles and sieges but who managed to maintain their morale because of music. One such instance that readily springs to mind was after the death of Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. His iron-fisted rule helped keep several warring regional factions at bay during his lifetime, but, upon his death, a leadership vacuum took hold. Those regional forces were unleashed and many major battles took place all over the Yugoslavian region. One of the most cruel and deadly was the Serbian siege of the city of Sarajevo. Just a few years earlier, Sarajevo had hosted the world at the Winter Olympic Games. Now, it found itself surrounded by Serbian siege guns, as well as highly trained snipers. Consequently, Sarajevo was heavily damaged by shelling. Many of those people who were trapped there ended up being killed by sniper fire as they attempted to buy bread in the marketplace or to simply cross the street in daylight hours. The Siege of Sarajevo went on for days and weeks. Not long after it began, a man began to appear at the ruins of the local church. He was armed but not with a gun. Instead, he brought a cello with him. Each evening he would play a composition called Adagio in G Major. This composition is approximately 22 minutes long which matches the total number of civilians killed by sniper fire on the deadliest days of the siege. The Cellist of Sarajevo’s music rang out in the night sky and gave hope to those trapped in the city that there was still hope…that they were still alive! The story of the Cellist of Sarajevo was part of the inspiration by the members of a heavy metal band called Savatage to create a rock opera-esque style Christmas song. The song was given the weighty title of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”. This song borrows heavily from Wilhousky’s “Carol of the Bells” to such an extent that many people think that “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is “Carol of the Bells”. Whenever Savatage put on a performance of this song, they changed the name of the band to Trans Siberian Orchestra.

One other instance of music rallying a people under siege concerns the modern day citizens of Ukraine. As I type these words, Ukraine has been under attack from Russia for almost a full calendar year. There has been much destruction of property and many innocent lives have been lost. But one of the things that has helped Ukraine to withstand the Russian onslaught to date has been the charismatic leadership and communication style of the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He understood from the very beginning that maintaining the morale of his countrymen was one of the keys to possibly surviving or even winning this war. So, President Zelensky spoke to the nation often, especially in the very early days of the conflict. His defiant speeches and firm personal resolve steadied the citizens of Ukraine. But, not only that, he encouraged as many musicians and artists and actors and poets as possible to continue to create new works and to celebrate Ukrainian classic works, too. So, not only have there been concerts and new plays performed in Ukraine all throughout the war, but Ukrainian choirs and orchestras have been able to travel the world. Just like when the Cellist of Sarajevo played each night in the ruins of that church, those singers who perform for western audiences do more than simply sing; they announce to the world through song that Ukraine is strong and that it will survive. One of the most popular songs that these traveling Ukrainian choirs and orchestras perform is “Shchedryk”. In the link section below, you will be able to hear these choirs singing in their native language in places like Grand Central Station in New York City. The performances are mesmerizing.

“Shchedryk” aka “The Little Swallow” aka “Carol of the Bells” aka “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”: all versions of the same song of hopefulness, friendship, courage and love. Let the bells ring out! When there is music, there is life!

The link to the video for the song “Shchedryk” can be found here.

The link to the video for the carol “Carol of the Bells” can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for a story about the Cellist of Sarajevo can be found here. ***The link for the composition “Adagio in G Minor” can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” can be found here.

The link to the video for a performance of the song “Shchedryk” in Grand Central Station in New York City can be found here.

***As always, all original material contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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