Sounding joy: This song rings a bell
The New Year’s song, “Shchedryk,” written by Ukranian composer Mykola Leontovych, has a haunting, driving motif in F minor that is graced with cascading scales of melody. It was performed at Carnegie Hall just 100 years ago by the Ukranian National Chorus. There, American composer Peter J. Wilhousky heard the call and beauty of ringing bells in its tolling rhythm and soaring strains. He wrote English lyrics for the song and inscribed it in our Christmas memories as “Carol of the Bells.” If you can’t already hear it in your head, try this vocal arrangement or one of these with bells. Watch this one or this one!
For me, there is something in the free-wheeling lyricism of the melody that embodies joy in ways that don’t require words. The music bursts with energy and surprise, equally confident in its swift crescendos and its demure echoes. Harmonies dance around one another; the four-note motif plays hide-and-seek in various voices throughout the piece. Few things in life are capable of “sounding joy” to me as this carol does.
The impact of the carol is multiplied by my memories of playing bells in church choirs as a youngster. My introduction to vocal choirs was pretty rough – the Cherub Choir director wondered if I had ever sung anything but one note, over and over. So when someone suggested that the bell choir could use a couple more hands, I jumped at the chance and found a wonderful new experience. The bells were perfectly in tune and all I had to do was pick up the right one and keep time decently well. There was new joy in making music!
Over the years, there came the added joy of tackling more and more intricate melodies and rhythms. The best part was the combined effort of all the choir members in mastering those challenges. No one of us could make it happen alone. The simplest scale usually required at least three or four of us, and we almost learned to breathe in unison in order to stay in sync with the tempo and one another.
Whether in the accomplishment of a mere quartet (in one of the videos above) or the stunningly coordinated concentration of a choir of several dozen young people (in the other video), the subtle smiles across the group at the end stir my memories. After intense focus on the music through the several minutes of a song, sensing the dynamics within the group as much as in the score, the moment just after damping our bells from the final chord was exhilarating. We had done it together! The joy we had sounded in our playing now resounded in our hearts.
That joy still echoes whenever I hear “Carol of the Bells” in any arrangement. Like the Christmas story itself, a successful performance of the carol carries within it dedication, trust, uncertainty, focus, challenge, coordination, patience, disappointment, perseverance, sweat, labor, and anxiety; what emerges from it is a breathtaking blessing – sounding joy!