“CAROL OF THE BELLS” – STUBBORN, REALLY?!
By Amy Cassaniti
“Hark how the bells / Sweet silver bells / All seem to say / Throw cares away” recognize the song? What would the Christmas season be without hearing once or one hundred times the instantly recognizable “Carol of the Bells”? The “Carol of the Bells” has been performed in virtually all musical genres from classical, metal, jazz, country, rock, and pop. This perennial English favorite carol has entertained audiences since its composition in 1914. Wait. “Carol of the Bells” is NOT English? In fact, no. “Carol of the Bells” is Ukrainian.
In 1914, Mykola Leontoyych took as his inspiration the Ukrainian folk chant, “Shcledryk” which was a traditional song sung on New Year’s Eve. Leontoyych adapted the traditional melody into a four-note ostinato. An ostinato (from the Italian word meaning “stubborn”) is a musical motif or phrase that is repeated throughout the composition frequently in the same pitch. Using just four notes - B flat, A, B flat, G – the melody “stubbornly” begins and ends and begins and ends until finally resolving where it began on a B flat. The English lyrics were written by Peter J. Wilhousky and added later. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by a four-part choir.
The attraction for many in listening to “Carol of the Bells” is simply that it is an ostinato. In other words, the melody of the four repeated notes is pleasing to the ear and easy to remember. When Wilhousky added the English lyrics, he emphasized bells as the melody suggested to him a bell choir. This reality has also added to the durability of the carol. The simplicity of the composition lends itself readily to another of favorite of the Christmas season, handbell choirs.
So, why has “Carol of the Bells” which wasn’t even originally a Christmas song become so associated with Christmas? Well, modern English lyrics do mention “sweet silver bells” and “Christmas is here / Bringing good cheer” both of which emphasize the Christmas season. But perhaps the real reason that “Carol of the Bells” defines Christmas for so many is the legend associated with the original folk tune. Slavic legend has it that at midnight, exact time of Jesus’s birth, all the bells on earth spontaneously started to ring of their own accord. As the Christmas season is about miracles and hope and the “stubbornness” of God’s love for His creation, if you will, the song seemingly encompasses everything humanity yearns for.
Click on the link below to hear a traditional rendition of this most beloved carol.
As a testament to the versatility of Leontoyych’s composition, try listening to a heavy metal adaptation.
Heavy Metal by Orion’s Reign: