The composition was premiered in December 1916 by students at Kiev University and was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas. It premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall and was later adapted into English language version by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s. A version ("Ring Christmas Bells") with words written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947 is also widely performed.
The song is based on a traditional folk chant whose language was thought to have magical properties because of the manner in which it manipulated the number 3. The original traditional Ukrainian text used a device known as hemiola in the rhythm (alternating the accents within each measure from 3/4 to 6/8 and back again). The chant based on an ostinato 4 note pattern within the range of a minor third is thought to be of prehistoric origins and was associated with the coming New Year which in Ukraine before the introduction of Christianity was originally celebrated in April.
With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January and the holiday the chant describes became associated with the Feast of Epiphany also known in Ukrainian as Shchedry vechir. The songs sung for this celebration are known as Schedrivky.
The original Ukrainian text tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful and bountiful year that the family will have. The title is derived from the Ukrainian word for "bountiful."
In Ukraine, the carol is currently sung on the eve of the Julian New Year (January 13).
The 4 note melody over a minor 3rd of the chant was used by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych as an ostinato theme in a number of arrangements he made. The arrangement for mixed voice choir a cappella was popularized by the Ukrainian Republic Capella directed by Oleksander Koshetz when it toured the West after 1920.
The words for "Ring Christmas Bells" by Minna Louise Hohman are still under copyright.
Sounds of the Season A collection of facts and figures about the sonic equivalent of comfort food - the songs we sing for Christmas
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