«Shchedryk» / Good (New Year’s) Wishes aka «Carol of the Bells» by Mykola Leontovych


100th Anniversary of World Glory

He arouses spirits. He is a sorcerer.

From songs and homons, from rays and moons

Above the world puts a streamy arch,

Transparent, colored, tight.


M. Bazhan «Leontovych’s well»

Today the whole world knows the music of «Shchedryk», masterfully crafted by the skilled hand of a brilliant Ukrainian Master. This masterpiece has inspired new generations of talented composers, cinematographers, singers, instrumentalists, jazzmen, rappers, even computer technicians and athletes to create diverse versions and improvisations that have blossomed into bright colors developed into great compositions our choral acapella miniature. Most of the world’s human community often knows neither the name of the author of the masterpiece nor his country of origin, and has never heard of his suffering fate.

Mykola Leontovych. «Modest folk teacher from Podillia» – that’s how classic of Ukrainian music Mykola Lysenko, called him during his life, and he also foresaw that the name of this person would become the pride of Ukraine and shine next to the names of such masters of the past as Mykola Dyletskyi, Maksym Berezovskyi, Dmytro Bortnianskyi, Artemii Vedel.

Master Leontovych left us his «white swans, loud songs» remained, as Rylsky wrote. And among them, perhaps the most important place is the world masterpiece «Shchedryk» / «Carol of the Bеlls». The composition attracted the attention of millions, among whom were musicians, folklorists, philologists, cinematographers, philosophers and theologians. The original archetype from a series of so-called «folk primitives» – a motif of 4 sounds within a one and a half-ton – has long been perceived by our ancestors, even pagans, as a magic formula – a kind of mantra that fascinated, hypnotized the person.

The main psychological factors of this «magic» were constant repetition of the  motif – оstinato-stabilіtas and continuity of movement – perpetuum mobile. Even the power of the word (verbe) gave way before the musical and psychological beginning. This phenomenon, as it is thought, has attracted the attention of such such a brilliant music magician as M. Leontovych when he selected samples for his composer sketch.

Studying of the musical text of «Shchedryk» made it possible to distinguish 5 vectors of analysis, among them not quite typical for musicology (without doubt, with sufficient scrupulousness, there may be more of them), namely: I. Historical; II. Musical; III. Verbal; IV. Graphic; V. Numerological.


І. History.


The «Shchedryk» manuscript, sent to Olexander Koshyts, is dated August 18, 1916. Ya. Yurmas (Yuriy Masiutin [1]) noted that the text was taken from the «Collection of the best Ukrainian songs with notes» in 1913, part IV, K. Polishchuk – M. Ostapovych (No. 23, p. 18). However, according to Boleslav Yavorsky, polyphonic exercises with the motif – ostinato «Shchedryk» began in 1910. It is logical to assume that M. Leontovych chose a folklore sample, which he had known since childhood, that was common in Podillia (he perhaps zashchedruvav more than one candy himself since childhood). In his young years he made the first attempts to harmonize it. From the mentioned collection by K. Polishchuk – M. Ostapovych took the words recorded by the collectors in Volyn in Krasnopil, Zhytomyr county (it is likely that these recorded lines contributed to the final compositional decision of the form of the work). Familiarity with the printed text gave the artist space for a wider – through – deployment of the music material, and possibly also the change of the original polyphonic concept of the structure to a synthetic one – with the introduction of harmonic-homophone techniques. As we can see, the process of elaboration of «Shchedryk» lasted 6 years. Not for nothing! The phenomenal success in Kiev at Christmas concerts of the choir of students of Saintly Volodymyrs’ University under the direction of O. Koshyts in 1916 (old style on December 25, 1916, that is, according to the new style on January 7, 1917) became for «Shchedryk» the first stage of ascension to world glory. This choral miniature immediately made M. Leontovнch’s name known among Ukrainian music fans and generated a great interest in his work. Shchedryk became a powerful impulse to recognize the artist’s charisma from green Podillia for the whole of Ukraine.


 ІІ. Musical text.


The main grain of the work is a four-tone motif. It is repeated ostinato with holding in all parties 68 times! These grains are like sparkling pearls scattered in the space, from which the colorful audio sylianka-gerdan weaves. М. Leontovych resorts to the use of various techniques of composer writing, without violating the basic principle of perpetuum mobile – «perpetual motion» оstinato. What are these techniques? Stringing of «pearls- grains» on the line – «thread» (the so-called counter-point – contradiction to the topic); reflections -«mirroring» of these grains in the upper-tertiary second (this technique is often found both in folk singing and in sacral, in particular, it is a characteristic feature of the Kyiv church chant); softening of the harmonious «field» by plagal final cadencing (S–T). Before the climax, the composer effectively uses the «bourdon pedal point» technique for bass, which actively pumps the overall atmosphere of the sound. And to the climax on f gives genre characteristic: melodic pattern of soprano part and general rhythmic remind Ukrainian folk kozachky with their outlines (a great number of researchers have pointed to the scherzo nature of the climax). In this period (couplet), it seems that the national nature of the Master’s genius appeared to be the most powerful (21–24 beats: «You have the goods all good…»).

   Choral miniature of M. Leontovych is striking with that in it is achieved through dramatic development due, first of all, to the polyphonic principles of thinking, which is extremely rarely met in the music of early XX century artists.


ІІІ. Poetic text.


Three variants of the text of «Shchedryk» have been approved for today (back in the 1920s, there were attempts abroad to make translations of the Ukrainian generosity into French, English, but they did not take root in cultural circulation). And each of them is related a separate story.

The first textual source is associated to the pre-Christian era, when the new year began in early spring – with the return of the swallows to Ukraine (it was considered from March 14; and vesnianky began to sing from April). It is noticeable that the composer submits the words «shchedryk», «shchedrivochka» only in case of thematic conducting and never takes them to the textured development. They actually have such «aromatic» verbal sounding power, that used in other layers could «muddle» the overall coloring. Interestingly, that in the couplet with the ascending legatо (25–28 beats) for soprano the composer took the words «You have a good wife», though there were two more options to choose from: а) «Although not money» b) «that is chaff». As if the detail – but revealing! In addition, after the words «you have a black-eyebrowed wife» (29–33 b., the last katren) all three parts except soprano, «with taste» pull with mouth shut «m-m-m», with a clear predominance of male voices who so express their admiration for the beauty of the mistress.

The second text version of the song – «Oy na richtsi, na Ordani / Oh, on the river, on Jordan». It was recorded by a good acquaintance of M. Leontovych, a teacher of singing from Tulchyn Fedir Lototskyi in the village Palanka of the Haisyn district in the Podillia in December 1916:

Oh, on the river, on Jordan,

There Mother of God washed chasubles,

Was swaddling her Son.

Three angels arrived,

Took Jesus to heaven …

The dissemination of this text version among of Podolian intellectuals, clergy, peasants testified the genre metamorphosis of the composition, namely, transfering it from shchedrivky to Christmas carols related to the theme of the birth of Christ. The other geography, the other season of the year. This text version already in our time – since the 1980s, for the first time, the famous choirmaster and scientist Mstyslav Yurchenko presented with the «Vidrodzhennia» choir, after what it was picked up by the choirs «Kyiv», «Khreshchatyk», «Pektoral», ensembles «Favor», «Anima» and many other collectives. When performing this text, the agogics, tempo-rhythmics and dynamics peculiar to actually «Shchedryk» is preserved in the whole.

In Prague in the then Czechoslovakia on May 11, 1919, the world triumph of «Shchedryk» began, which was, as it turned out, the most effective performance of the concert program of the Ukrainian Republican Chapel under the direction of the talented composer and choral conductor Olexandr Koshyts. It was a surprisingly successful idea of the then head of Ukraine, Symon Petliura, to send the choir chapel as the «first musical and diplomatic mission» of the newly proclaimed European state to the world. Over the years 1919–1924 the Ukrainian Republican Chapel, despite general political complications, creative conflicts, and life difficulties, gave more than 600 concerts in 200 cities of 17 countries of Western Europe, North and South America (we’ll name the route of performances: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Spain; overseas USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba). More than 1,300 reviews in 12 languages of the peoples of the world attest to the unprecedented success of the chapel – the «cultural ambassador of Ukraine», marvel at the unprecedented beauty of national choral music never heard before, which sounded acapella – unaccompanied, and enthusiastically exclaim «bravo» to the Leontovych shchedrivka. On October 5, 1922, it was performed for the first time on the American continent in New York’s most prestigious concert hall «Carnegie Hall». Thereafter, only the USA the O. Koshyts choir performed in 36 states, where more than 200 concerts were given. Among its listeners there were many our Ukrainian relatives who shed more than one tear, recognizing their native words and singing.

Fate put it so that after 1924, when the Ukrainian Republican Chapel ceased its concert activities, the majority of its participants and the leader himself became emigrants, because returning to Ukraine – already Soviet – was both impossible and dangerous for their life. Yesterday’s members of the chapel joined a new society and put their skills into creating a multi-ethnic American music culture.

After a triumphant walk through the worlds with O. Koshyts chapel, our «Shchedryk» was not lost in the diversity of American singings and rhythms. Moreover, it received a full-fledged life with a new English version of the text. No, this is not a translation from Ukrainian, but a completely original poem, corresponding to the genre of carols, and it was sung in it about Christmas bells: «Hark how the bells». It was composed in the 1930s by a conductor-choirmaster, a good acquaintance of the famous conductor Toscanini, music teacher Peter Wilkhovsky (the surname eloquently indicates the ethnic origin of the author of the words). Exactly as «Carol of the Bells» M. Leontovych’s composition sounded on March 30, 1936 in New York «Madison Square Garden» performed by a student choir under the direction of the already mentioned P. Olkhovskyi in front of a 15,000th audience – participants of the USA Music Teachers Congress. The same year by «Carl Fisher, Inc.», for the first time, words with the music of this «Carol of the Bells» were printed for the first time, which again broke the storm of applause.

Olkhovskyi when creating new words consciously chose a symbol of the winter holiday, universally understood for the American mentality- Christmas silver bells, and related pictures of a snow-covered magic forest, a sledge with gifts… The thought turned out to be reasonable! The words have taken root on a new national and continental background. Even more – over time Americans began to consider «Carol of the Bells» their own folk art:

When performing this text, the accentuation of syllables and agogy change markedly. After all, the final in the key phrase (grain) «bells» clearly needs emphasis. Instead, the words «swallow» or « Jordan» imply the attenuation of the volume of the last syllable, and sometimes it is simply removed in the code – like folk singing. This is not at all acceptable with a monosyllabic noun «bells». So, it is thought, the Ukrainian «Shchedryk» in the English version sounds a bit «hard» – harder and more effective.


ІV. Graphics.


The impulse for that became researches in the field of synthesis of the arts, in particular, the light-music, which M. Leontovych also took care of in the short «Kyiv period» of life in 1919-1920. Today experimental searches in this field have reached the level of creating artistic paintings based on note texts, where, accordingly each note – its height-color and duration appear figurative canvases.

The study of the nature and mystery of «constructing symbolic imagery», to which gave great importance J. Goethe, C.G. Jung, P. Florensky, O. Losev and other bright minds, prompted to the thought to look for signs-symbols in Leontovych’s works. It is known that the works of M. Leontovych are called by some researchers and poets a «diamond faceted by the hand of Genius». But it is possible to make comparisons of no less valuable importance – Ukrainian embroideries and sylianku-gerdany, skillfully networking the golden hands of our masters. Let’s take a look at Leontovych’s «Shchedryk» in graphic ornamental images. Miracle – his singings turned into the outlines of a delicate flower growing vertically upwards. In it clearly were distinguished 6 elements: 1) the original «grain» in the straight line, whetre 68 repetitions (including the singled out last) – 68 «petals»; 1-а) reflection of «grain» – upper-tertiary undervoice (S: «You have the goods all good …»); 2) linear «stalk» – first downward movement of alts («Began itself», 5–8 beats), and further – at alts and tenors («tweet», 9–12 beats); 3) leaves with «denticles»-accents («You have the goods all good …», 21–24 beats); 4) wavy «feather grasses» (S: «You have a black-eyebrowed wife», 25–28 beats); 5) soil – Bourdon (Bassо: «You have the goods all good», 17–20 beats); 6) bud – burgeon (duet coda: «swallow», 68 beat). The flower pattern can be enriched by layering all 67 motifs -petals (because the last 68th – coda).

Significant phenomenon – the universal laws of human thought appeared common both for musical intonation and graphic image. They formed into an eternal symbol – ornament «Flower of life» with bud – burgeon – sprout in the future, which is so liked to embroider on towels by our masters, or paint artists from Petrykivka or at ceramics potters, carvers at wood products.

   Well-known researcher of Ukrainian ornaments, winner of the National Prize named by Taras Shevchenko, my long-time IASFE colleague Zoia Chehusova notes: «… flower in world art is considered a symbol of the globe or center of the universe, as a result – an archetypal symbol of the soul. Flowers are also common symbols of young life and the sun, they represent the life force and joy of being, the end of the winter state of nature and victory over death. The love of flowers made them almost the object of our people’s cult. Flowers accompany the entire life of Ukrainians – from birth to death» .

Over time, new visual information was which allowed to associatively solve the problem of depiction of «Flower-Shchedryk». Namely – a magnificent multi-petal flower of the southern portal of the Notre-Dame de Paris (1260-ies). It forms «Flower – Sun rosette» (Solar). Expanding the meaning of the symbol of the flower-rosette, which is found in many cultures of humanity all over the planet, we see its use in sacred knowledge, where it means the original symbol of the soul (SPIRIT), namely – «Air – Breathing», the power of the cosmic vital energy (both in Sanskrit and ancient Ukrainian it sounded – «KHА», «KHArа», in ancient Greeks – goddess KHarita, KHarisma; recall it appropriately, «KHArakternyky» were called people, who possessed this power).

Such a symbol can be seen on the belt kerchief, embroidery on the chest, sleeves, covers of the head of Mother of God – Oranta in the dome of Kyiv St. Sophia Cathedral (Sofia – the highest wisdom), the pleaded icons of Mother of God.

Its modification as a cross with arms extended at the ends was fixed by the crosses of the Maltese Order and Zaporizhian Cossacks, the award crosses of modern Ukraine.

We also see the «Breathing-Khara» symbol in the pattern of Ukrainian embroidery, recorded by writer and ethnographer Olena Pchilka – Lesya Ukrainka’s mother.

So, according to the French solar rosette-flower, we will compose graphically «Flower-Shchedryk». However, let’s pay attention, if to follow exactly the outline of the note line, it turns out not a rose or an aster, but a lush Polissia cornflower-blavatka with pointed tips of the petals. Let’s try to draw it: in the inner circle 23 petals, in the outer – 44. And the last petal – “swallow” – soared up.

The study of the nature and mysteries of the abovementioned «construction of symbolic imagery» prompted the idea to look for new signs in Leontovych’s works. And as the next sample «lit» sound design pattern of Leontovych’s arrangement «My Grandfather, Dudaryk». Again, an ornamental look came out, but horizontal, close to the folk embroidery, which decorate sleeves of shirts or valances of tablecloths or napkins. The sound of male voices imitating the bourdon quinta of the folk lyre («My Grandfather») has become the contour that frames moving female voices. They lie in parallel, harmoniously, with special grace emphasizing the asymmetrical architectonics of the period (unique among folklore samples). After all, it consists of 7 motifs, grouped into 3 sections: 3+2+2. The graphic itself highlights how much the pattern resembles a seven – «7» and how the motifs of the last link sum up all the constituent intonems. It is interesting if the composer was satisfied with just singing about the old grandfather-musician and his duda – bagpipes, or did his opinion found any other signs-symbols there?

V. In this regard, we recall another ancient knowledge – numerology


Discarded by materialistic science, but well known in pre-revolutionary times, including for those who studied at theological seminaries and academies. It’s no secret that the development of numerology involved the ancient Pythagoras, the genius of the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci, modern G. Hesse, D. Brown and … cybernetics scientists. They claimed that everything could be calculated! Like everything that generates an abstract generalization, it can become a symbol – elements of nature, physical world, space and imaginary abstractions – letters, numbers, the interweaving of lines and sounds, generated by the unconscious wisdom of humanity, which stretches for millennia and manifests itself with particular passionarity in the creations of geniuses.

   It is known what significant sacred value have the number and numeric in Scripture and other sacred knowledge. They are called there respectfully «figure». The fundamental role is played by the «figure» in modern sciences, especially cybernetics, which have become the driving force of human civilization today.

Not the last role in the desire to turn to numerology was played by reasoning by M. Leontovych of the song «Dudaryk / The Piper» as a subconscious music authorial image (sound «self-portrait»), where both the text and the singing suited his artistic nature, and a number «seven» was, as it is said, code – «fortunately, for fate». It makes one wonder about the «digital figures» the amount  of numbers of his famous «Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom». Judging from the preserved in archives of composer church choirs, there would have been enough for at least two Liturgies. But he with a thought to dedicate the great ecclesiastical work for the approval of the Ukrainian Church Autocephaly composed only 21 numbers, that is, the trio of sevens (by the way, at the same time and with the same intention, the Liturgy was composed by composer Y. Yatsynevych, where also are 21numbers). So, obviously, M. Leontovych knew the value of «digital figure».

We are even more convinced of this during the calculation of isolated thematic grains of «Shchedryk»: for 68 times is repeated «grain» + 4 times is shown its upper-tertiary reflection + 1 time in the code = 73, which in the case of 7 + 3 = 10; number numeric 0 is not counted (according to the rules of numerology), number 1 remains = symbol of «Deus», «God». Surprisingly again came to universal human symbols-ideas of subconscious rank.

Obviously, M. Leontovych left us not only a choral masterpiece «Shchedryk», but also a wonderful «puzzle» that began to unfold only with the passage of time, centuries later. All these secrets were hidden from external view. But they undoubtedly effect on the subconscious of a person, especially emotionally sensual, and blossom with beautiful flowers in her soul, turned to God. Such a gift was left by Mykola Leontovych for all mankind, in whose piety and mind he believed.

In conclusion, let us express an opinion: due to the fact that all important national cultural phenomena are listed in the register under the UNESCO program, we urge all indifferent Ukrainians to apply to this highly respected body for recognition of «Shchedryk» by Mykola Leontovych the spiritual heritage of mankind. It would be a beautiful flower woven into the wreath of glory of the brilliant Master from the Ukrainian Podillia.

Author: Valentyna KUZYK – musicologist, Doctor of Philosophy of Art.

Shchedryk – Kyiv Chamber Choir accompanied by orchestra