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The world-famous “Carol of the bells” by Mykola Leontovych
Every year, on New Year’s and Christmas holidays, this tune can be heard without any exaggeration all over the world. Do you know where it was created and what fate befell the author of this world-famous composition?
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The cultural heritage of Ukraine as we know it today includes many objects of painting, architecture, poetry and music. Shevchenko’s poems, the architectural ensemble of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the works of Petrykivka painting masters are known all over the world…
And among the musical works created by Ukrainians, there is one that is one hundred percent known by every person outside our country. It is performed on different continents in English, German, French, Japanese, Arabic, Russian and many other languages.
Meet! This is a Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. He is an author of this work. Its English title is “Carol of the bells”, and in the original the tune is called “Shchedryk”.
Leontovych wrote the first version of “Carol of the bells” in 1901. And for the next 18 years he has been improving it. It should be clarified that according to Ukrainian musicologists, the melody – that is, a motif similar to one found in “Carol of the bells”, belongs to the oldest examples of Ukrainian folklore. This is not the same work, but simply a similar musical form, which is made from two binaries, that is creating a mirror musical symmetry.
These facts do not diminish the significance of Leontovych’s work. Because the composer unfolded a simple folk song to a large musical canvas, organically combining folk polyphony and classical musical polyphony. Virtuously directing the voices of the choir’s soloists, the composer clearly reproduces the artistic images of the Ukrainian people, culture, demonstrates unlimited flexibility and melodiousness of the Ukrainian language.
“Carol of the bells” was first performed in 1916 in Kyiv by a choir of Kyiv University. Leontovych conducted the choir himself during the premiere. The work performance brought great success! Leontovych’s name became famous in music circles and among the public.
“Carol of the bells” begins a triumphant journey through Europe: it is performed in Prague, Vienna, Bern, Paris, Brussels, The Hague, London, Berlin, Warsaw, Barcelona... In 1922, “Carol of the bells” was sung by a Ukrainian choir in New-York Carnegie Hall! Thanks to these tours, Ukrainian culture and the state prestige of Ukraine have gained a positive resonance around the world!
Mykola Leontovych’s life was tempestuous, full of pleasant and exciting events. This was primarily due to the time in which the composer lived. But wherever Leontovych’s fate brought him, he promoted the spread of music everywhere and attracted people to it.
After graduating from school, Leontovych continued to improve his musical education and organized an amateur symphony orchestra in his native village of Chukiv, Vinnytsia region. In Donbass, where after some time Mykola Dmytrovych went to teach music and singing, he organized a workers' choir, which performed at rallies during the 1905 revolution. These performances drew the attention of the police to Leontovych’s persona, and he was forced to move to the city of Tulchyn, where he earned his living by his usual job – teaching music and singing.
Along with teaching, Leontovych continues his studies and is engaged in composition. A well-known music theorist Boleslav Yavorsky helps him in this. It was in Tulchyn that his works “Dudaryk”, “Little Mother Had a Daughter”, “Singing Roosters”, “Oh, the Dawn Has Gone” and “Carol of the Bells” appeared. This first performance of “Carol of the bells”, by the choir of Kyiv University in 1916, gives Leontovych great love of the public and recognition of professionals. Leontovych moved to Kyiv, the capital of the Ukrainian National Republic at that time. Everything goes well in Kyiv. He is active as a conductor and a composer, he collaborates with famous composers at the National Conservatory, his works are included into the repertoire of professional bands…
But the troubled times in Ukraine do not allow Mykola Dmytrovych to stay and work calmly. In August 1919, Kyiv was captured by the Denikinites. They begin to chase the Ukrainian intelligentsia and Leontovych is forced to flee to Tulchyn. There he continues to write music, in particular, he began his work on the opera “On the Mermaid’s Easter” based on a fairy tale by Boris Grinchenko; and he also founded the first musical school in the city.
Such is the fate of gifted people – wherever you are and no matter what life’s persecutions haunt you, you always remain faithful to the work of your life.
In 1921 Mykola Leontovich went to visit his parents in the village of Markivka, Vinnytsia region. He doesn’t know that a VChK agent Afanasy Grishchenko is already following him on the way. In the evening of January 22, Gryshchenko asked to spend the night at the Leontovychs’ house, and early in the morning he shoots a sleeping composer with a rifle! And for some time, he prevents the father, who seeks to help his son. The killer rummages in the closets, looking for money and gold. He takes with him everything he sees: underwear, a fur coat, a wallet, Mykola Dmytrovych's watch and even boots! Because of this, the world-famous composer was buried barefoot, he was only 43 years old. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.
According to Larysa Semenko, a head of the Vinnytsia Regional Museum of Local Lore, Leontovych could have displeased the Soviet “top” with his pro-Ukrainian position. He was considered dangerous because he enjoyed the authority both among the common people and the intelligentsia.
Leontovych’s music is created out of great love for life, people, Ukraine… It is so trusting and sincere, natural and real… It knocks on the door of every family at Christmas time and pleases the whole world with its originality.

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Сергей Фомкин
Кира Орлова