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Carol of the Bells

Carol of the Bells

Leontovych, Mykola

Arr. Olson, Gary


  • Ensemble: Brass Quintet
  • Genre: Christmas
  • Grade: 3
  • Duration: 2.5 minutes
  • Catalog Number: DB-CAN0108

“Shchedrik,” a composition based on a Ukrainian Christmas melody, was first performed in 1916 by the Student Choir at the University of Kiev. Renamed “Carol of the Bells”, the piece has become immensely popular in the United States. Little information about the tumultuous life of the composer is available.

The brief biography included as a preface to the volume of his collected choral works published by the Ukrainian State Publishing House, is the source of the information presented here. It should be noted that this information cannot be corroborated in available Western sources. Mikola Dimitrovich Leontovich was born on January 13, 1877 in Momastr’ok, the son of a Greek Orthodox village priest. His parents taught him to love the fold music of the surrounding countryside. Choral singing was emphasized during his primary education at the parochial school in Shargorod. He learned musical notation while attending the seminary at Kam’ianets Podolsk where his musical talent was discovered and encouraged by the priests, and in particular by Lisenko. While still a student, he became director of the seminary choir. Under his direction the choir took on a folk orientation and became widely known. He began to write for choir and to rework some of his mentor’s compositions. Following graduation in 1899, he became a teacher of singing and arithmetic at the Chukivsk Lyceum, forming a choir and a small symphony orchestra. While at the Lyceum he wrote the First Collection of Songs of Podole but did not consider them good enough for publication. The Second Collection of Songs of Podole was published in 1903 at the insistence of Lisenko. Although the collection included some true masterpieces, Leontovich was not satisfied. He bought and destroyed most of the edition.

In 1902 Leontovich moved to Vinnica where he became a teacher at the church pedagogical school. In addition to teaching, he directed the school choir and the seminary orchestra. In 1904 he became a teacher at the Railroad School at Grishino Station in Donbas, an important industrial and coal mining town. After the collapse of the 1905 revolution, Leontovich, an active participant, escaped from Donbas and returned to Podole, settling in the village of Tulchini. He took a job at a church school while he continued to develop his choral music. Beginning in 1909 Leontovich studied music theory with the famous Russian music theoretician, B.L. Yavorsky. At this time he studied harmony, polyphony and counterpoint and began to incorporate these techniques into Ukrainian fold music. The performance of Shchedrik in 1916 brought national acclaim and established him as an authority on Ukrainian music. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Leontovich organized the first State People’s Orchestra of the Ukraine and was appointed Commissar of Music. When Denikin briefly liberated Kiev from the Russian communists in 1919, Leontovich escaped to Tulchini where he wrote several Bolshevik songs and an opera. On January 22, 1921, he was captured in his father’s home in the village of Markivtsi and executed by the Anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian Freedom Fighters.

In honor of his role in the Bolshevik Revolution, the Leontovich Society, now the leading musical organization in the Ukraine, was established in Kiev shortly after his death. It is ironic that a composer so deeply involved in the Russian Communist Revolution should be best remembered for such a beautiful Christmas carol. Leontovich was a choral composer, artist and innovator who utilized native fold melodies, developing them with polyphony and counterpoint without departing from their basic form. His characteristic use of voices as instruments is beautifully illustrated by the “Carol of the Bells” and is the reason that this carol can be so effectively arranged for brass. The title is indicative not only of the character of the piece but also the style in which it should be played. The downbeat of each measure should be given a slight bell-like emphasis, particularly in the vivace section. The syncopations, where they occur, should be played in a similar fashion.

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