From Classic to Contemporary: 7 Versions of “Carol of the Bells”
One of the most traditional Christmas melodies through the ages
It’s that enchanting time of the year again, when sweet melodies weave through the air, and choirs craft musical spectacles that resonate in their communities and globally. Amidst the festive repertoire, there's a timeless classic that echoes with the spirit of the season — a song that continues to enchant every holiday playlist year by year. "Carol of the Bells." As we immerse ourselves in the joyous jingles and festive tunes, let's unwrap the magic behind this iconic Christmas carol.
Origins of “Carol of the Bells”
Did you know that “Carol of the Bells” is based on a Ukrainian folk chant? It’s called “Shchedryk," which means "bountiful" or "generous.” It is a New Year’s song, which narrates the tale of a little swallow flying into a house to proclaim the abundance and prosperity that the family is going to experience in the coming year.
In 1916 the folk song was arranged for choir by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych, who turned “Shchedryk" into the melody we all know today. The a cappella piece gained popularity when performed by students at Kyiv University in December 1916. However, with the rise of the Soviet Union, it lost its popularity in Ukraine.
From “Shchedryk” to “Carol of the Bells”
Years after, during the Great Depression, arranger Peter Wilhousky rediscovered the song, associating it with Christmas as its melody evoked the sound of handbells, a quintessential element of the holiday season. He added the English lyrics to the song that reference the bells and Christmas time, and the new old piece premiered on NBC radio in 1936. Within a short time, the song became a global holiday sensation, and since then it has been performed and adapted by music groups from all over the world and all various genres.
And “Carol of the Bells” remains a timeless holiday classic until today. To ring in the holiday season 2023 we collected our 7 favorite versions of the piece, which will inspire you to stage your rendition this year (again).
7 favorite versions of 'Carol of the Bells'
Boys' Choir of the M. Lysenko Music School (Ukraine)
We begin our list with a rendition of the song in its original version, performed in Ukrainian and featuring the authentic lyrics. It was a few years ago when the Boys’ Choir of the M. Lysenko Music School in Kyiv delivered this fine and thoughtful performance of 'Shchedryk,'. And it is particularly moving considering how the situation in their country has changed since the days when this performance was recorded.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir (USA)
As one of the most popular choirs in the world, Mormon Tabernacle Choir has even presented one of the most classical interpretations of Carol of the Bells, which is widely recognized as the version tailored for an ideal soundtrack for a traditional Christmas celebration. The seamless blend of bells, choir vocals, and accompanying instruments, paired with the well-known precision and grandeur of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, raises this rendition to a truly splendid height.
When delving into contemporary a cappella, Pentatonix stands out as one of the most famous and popular a cappella groups worldwide. Their widely acclaimed Christmas albums received multiple international music awards and it's no surprise that their rendition of "Carol of the Bells" is equally impressive. While maintaining the song's original essence, Pentatonix injects its distinctive style with beatboxing elements and special harmonies, adding its signature creative touch to the song.
Straight no Chaser (USA)
Following our exploration of the Pentatonix rendition of Carol of the Bells, let's stay a bit in contemporary a cappella with the all-male a cappella group Straight No Chaser. Their rendition is quite classical, but with the distinctive blend of male voices, Straight No Chaser brings a warm and deep perspective to the song, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a cozy musical accompaniment during the cold and dark winter months.
#YoCanto's rendition of "Carol of the Bells" from 2022 is not just a choir project; it's a participative choral initiative that has taken things a step further. More than 150 amateur singers gathered for two weekends, forming a massive choir consisting of 5 choirs and individual vocalists from various regions. Professionals in music and audiovisual arts accompanied them on this musical journey. As night falls and the bells chime, they assemble around the cathedral to perform the song. The cathedral lights up, and the city transforms into a festive Christmas tale. A great spectacle to watch!
John Williams (Home Alone: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, USA)
The rendition of "Carol of the Bells" featured in the iconic 1990 film "Home Alone" is a must-add to this list. Including this version in the movie played a pivotal role in making the song universally familiar to children and adults worldwide, significantly boosting its popularity. Though slightly slower than other renditions, it skillfully conjures a perfect Christmas ambiance. As you listen, you can almost visualize delicate snowflakes, hear the soft resonance of bell chimes, and witness choir voices seamlessly harmonizing. This rendition, unique in its essence, captures the essential romantic Christmas spirit that one eagerly anticipates during this festive season.
The Muppets (USA)
There's one more, unique rendition that may not be known for its exquisite singing, but we wouldn't want to miss sharing it with you. In 2009, the Muppets presented their parody video titled "Ringing of the Bells," and it quickly became a viral sensation. The video showcases beloved characters like Animal, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef, each offering their unconventional take on the song.
From Folk Tradition to Global Resonance
It’s been more than 100 years now since 'Shchedryk' was created and its melody has found its way into the classical (Christmas) repertoire of choirs, singers, and music bands from all around the world since then.
What once started as a folk tradition in a single country has transcended borders, transforming into a global tradition woven into the collective consciousness of a massive part of the world. The journey of 'Shchedryk' is a testament to the universal appeal of music and how it can beautifully unite hearts across the tapestry of our shared human experience.
For further read, we recommend this article published by the Kyiv Post in 2016, which on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the song spotlights some very interesting to unexpected versions of its Ukrainian original: From a flash mob in a subway to a perfectly pronounced performance by superstar Katie Melua on BBC and even a surprising rendition by five famous NBA stars with their basketballs. Can’t believe it? Take a look!