Tracing its history to 1914, Carol of the Bells is one of world’s most enduring Christmas carols. Generations of musicians, bands, and singers, including the renowned a capella group Pentatonix, have breathed life into the song each time the Christmas season comes along.
One Interesting fact though – while the holiday tune has become closely associated with Christmas, the original lyrics has nothing to do with the season at all!
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich created the song for a Christmas concert upon the invitation of choir director Oleksander Koshyts, who asked for a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies.
Using the four distinctive notes and the lyrics of a well-wishing song unearthed from an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies, Leontovich created “Shchedryk,” which is derived from the word “shchedryj” and translates to “bountiful.”
The song is actually the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim a plentiful year for the family. Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student who is studying the song’s history, explained that, “The swallow is a herald of spring coming.” The original lyrics described a swallow telling the master of the home of the wealth and bounty he is about to possess.
The song made its way around the world through Koshyts, who formed the Ukrainian National Chorus to promote Ukrainian music in major cultural centers in the West. By 1919, the melody had been performed in over 1,000 concerts across Europe and North and South America.
Two years later, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s choral work. Reminded of bells, he wrote new lyrics, which he published and copyrighted in 1936. From its roots in Soviet Ukraine, the new arrangement made its debut in the late 1930s, and soon became one of the world’s most popular Christmas carols.
Retitled the “Carol of the Bells,” the song is now intertwined with the holidays because of its new lyrics, with references to silver bells, caroling, and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”
Notable groups began making records of the song. It was also becoming increasingly popular among choirs given the song’s soprano-alto-tenor-bass arrangement and countermelody.
Various artists have since rendered their own versions of the song, recording the Christmas carol in an array of formats and styles, ranging from standard choir arrangements to improvisational jazz and sultry soul.
More than a 100 years since it was composed, Carol of the Bells has become a wonderful staple of the holiday season. New generations of artists continue to breathe life into different Christmas carols, most notably the a capella group Pentatonix. The group’s rendition of Carol of the Bells, however, bring the holiday tune to a whole new level.
Formed in 2011, Pentatonix hails from Arlington, Texas and is best known for their pop-style arrangements with vocal harmonies, basslines, riffing, percussion, and beatboxing.
With their engaging style, the group has produced original material as well as covers of modern pop or Christmas songs. After releasing their first record in 2012, Pentatonix has reached the top of music charts, recorded a number of albums, and won a slew of awards, including the Grammys.
The group has also recorded various Christmas carols, including its standout version of Carol of the Bells.
With their trademark vocalization and modern beatboxing, Pentatonix sings Carol of the Bells in the most un-Christmas setting. The five-member group performs outdoors among the trees, in typical clothing, and without any hint of the holiday season. And yet they don’t need any of the trappings of the season to show that they are singing a Christmas tune.
Their voices weave through the melody and lyrics effortlessly, punctuated by lively beats, creating a memorable performance of one of the world’s most recognizable Christmas carols.
From a well-wishing Ukrainian folk melody to its place among the holiday season’s favorite Christmas carols, Carol of the Bells embodies the spirit of the season for millions across the globe. And with Pentatonix’s fresh interpretation of the song, the carol will surely continue to beat the heart of Christmas for generations to come.
Sing along to Carol of the Bells in the video below: