Christmas Stamps 2022: Ukraine – “Carol of the Bells”

In late 2013, I heard a version of “Carol of the Bells” performed by the British rock band Marillion. I immediately fell in love with every aspect of the song and it soon surpassed “Silent Night” as my favorite Christmas song. Last night, I was both surprised and delighted when I returned home from work and almost immediately saw an announcement from the Ukrainian Postal Service (Укрпошта/Ukrposhta) detailing the imminent release of a stamp honoring “Carol of the Bells” and its composer, Mykola Leontovych, on the centennial of the song’s first performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. I’d already written about the “Victorious New Year!” stamp issued on St. Nicholas Day and considered updating that article with this new stamp but decided it warranted its own dedicated article.

The single stamp will be released on December 23, 2022, and measures 40 x 40 mm. Designed by Mykolai Kochubeym it was printed by the Integrated Printing Plant Ukraina For Securities using the offset lithography process with foil embossing. Sold in sheets of four stamps, a total of 200,000 copies were printed of which 150 are uncut. The non-value indicator denomination is “W” for non-priority international letters using ground transportation up to 50 grams; it will have a face value of US $1.50 on the date of issue. A cacheted envelope for use as first day covers and a postcard are also available.

The music to “Carol of the Bells” was composed in 1914 by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (Микола Дмитрович Леонтович) with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on the Ukrainian folk chant “Shchedryk”. The music is in the public domain; Wilhousky’s lyrics, however, are under copyright owned by Carl Fischer Music. The music is based on a four-note ostinato and is in 3/4 time signature, with the B-flat bell pealing in 6/8 time. The carol is metrically bistable, and a listener can focus on either measure or switch between them. It has been adapted for many genres, including: classical, metal, jazz, country music, rock, trap, and pop. The piece also features in films, television shows, and parodies.

The conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Capella, Oleksander Koshyts (also spelled Alexander Koshetz) commissioned Leontovych to create the song based on traditional Ukrainian folk chants, and the resulting new work for choir, “Shchedryk”, was based on four notes Leontovych found in an anthology.

The original folk story related in the song was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated with the coming of spring in April. The original Ukrainian title translates to “the generous one” or is perhaps derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful (shchedryj), and tells a tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.

With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally associated became Malanka (Щедрий вечір, Shchedry vechir), the eve of the Julian New Year (the night of January 13–14 in the Gregorian calendar). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Shchedrivky.

The song was first performed by students at Kyiv University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and America, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1922, to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir.

Two other settings of the composition were also created by Leontovych: One for women’s choir (unaccompanied) and another for children’s choir with piano accompaniment. These are rarely performed or recorded.

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