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Ukrainians sing 'Carol of the Bells' at Carnegie Hall, 100 years after its U.S. debut

Oleh Mahlay, the artistic director of the Bandurist Choir, conducts members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America and Ukrainian Children's Choir at New York City's Carnegie Hall on Sunday.
Fadi Kheir
Oleh Mahlay, the artistic director of the Bandurist Choir, conducts members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America and Ukrainian Children's Choir at New York City's Carnegie Hall on Sunday.

Did you know that Carol of the Bells comes from Ukraine?

Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wrote Shchedryk in 1916, originally as a winter folk song.

The Ukrainian National Chorus brought the carol to the U.S. a few years later, when they performed it during a concert at Carnegie Hall in October 1922. It was the first stop on their tour of North America, as part of a cultural diplomacy mission. At that time, Ukraine was working to assert its independence and define its own identity (it would end up becoming part of the Soviet Union in December 1922).

American composer Peter Wilhousky gave the song its English lyrics and title in 1936, creating the contemporary Christmas staple. Its Ukrainian roots have been largely buried — until now.

Exactly a century after the song's North American debut, and during Ukraine's latest fight for freedom, Ukrainian musicians brought Shchedryk back to Carnegie Hall this weekend.

A playbill from the Ukrainian National Chorus' concert tour of U.S. universities and cities from October to December of 1922, which kicked off at Carnegie Hall.
/ Carnegie Hall Rose Archives
/
Carnegie Hall Rose Archives
A playbill from the Ukrainian National Chorus' concert tour of U.S. universities and cities from October to December of 1922, which kicked off at Carnegie Hall.

Shchedryk Children's Choir, along with several choruses and soloists, took to the famed stage on Sunday to perform a slew of Ukrainian carols.

Just a few days earlier, the children's choir performed the carol at New York City's Grand Central station.

Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, shared a video of the performance on Twitter, calling it "light amid darkness."

Sunday's concert was truly an international production, organized by entities including Ukraine's foreign ministry, the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations and the Embassy of Ukraine in the U.S.

It aimed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that first performance, shine a spotlight on Ukraine's distinct culture and support its efforts to defend — and rebuild — itself from Russian attacks.

"A 1919 review of the Ukrainian Republic Choir in the Genevan journal La Patrie Suisse mused that the Ukrainian National Republic established its independence through the motto, 'I sing, therefore I am,' " concert organizers wrote. "Ukraine continues to sing and continues to be."

Members of the Shchedryk Children's Choir (Kyiv) were among the performers on Sunday.
/ Fadi Kheir
/
Fadi Kheir
Members of the Shchedryk Children's Choir (Kyiv) were among the performers on Sunday.

Proceeds from the event are going to United 24, the global non-governmental organization and crowdfunding platform that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched in May. Funds from the concert will be specifically allocated towards the reconstruction of public services, organizers say.

The concert also featured recorded messages from Zelenskyy and the first lady, and a speech from American film director Martin Scorsese — one of the concert's hosts — urging audiences to donate to the campaign, the Kyiv Independent reports.

Marichka Marczyk, one of Sunday's soloists, spoke to NPR's All Things Considered last week about performing in such an important concert — "it's responsibility, it's happiness, it's like everything," she said.

"My brother is on the front line, fighting for our freedom, independence for me to be free, live in a peaceful sky and sing [these] Ukrainian old traditional songs," she added. "So my performance I am dedicating to him and for all the Ukrainian people who [are] now fighting for freedom."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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