There was a running joke when I was in high school that I would grow up to still be in handbell choir. I believe it was actually in my senior superlative or prediction, if I remember correctly. And over the years, I have continued to be involved with various bell choirs in different places and churches where I have lived.
Of all the Christmas pieces I have ever played, there is one arrangement of the Carol of the Bells that outshines them all. We originally learned it the year we were intended to travel overseas to Eastern Europe for our bell tour with my church’s high school bell choir (a trip we had to move due to everything that happened in Kosovo). I loved the arrangement so much that I have managed to get at least two other choirs to ring it since.
In truth, the carol is not very old, having been commissioned in 1914 by the conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir. The songwriter, Mykola Leontovych based his composition on a traditional Ukrainian folk chant and wrote it about the coming of the new year. It is worth bearing in mind that before Christianity was adopted, the new year was celebrated in Spring, not winter, and some of the undertones of the new life coming during that season were apparent in the original lyrics.
While the early song did reach our shores during the 1922 tour of the Ukrainian National Chorus, it was not until Peter J. Wilhousky wrote his well-known Christmas lyrics for the carol in the 1930s that the song’s popularity really took off in the United States. In the time since, it has been recorded using almost every type of genre imaginable.
Yet the power of this particular piece is in the music – a language that transcends every tongue, much like the love at the heart of this season that binds us together.