All products and recordings are chosen independently by our editorial team. This review contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.

‘Carol of the Bells’: who wrote the lyrics and who composed the music?

Composed and written in the 20th century, 'Carol of the Bells' has become a firm favourite at carol services across the world

Carol of the Bells lyrics and music

Did you know the music to Carol Of The Bells is over 100 years old? The much-loved lyrics to the Christmas carol favourite are a little younger though.

Advertisement

Who composed the music to ‘Carol of the Bells’?

The music was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914, who was asked by conductor Oleksander Koshyts to produce a piece inspired by Ukrainian chants. ‘Shchedryk’ was the result, a four-note ostinato in a 3/4 time signature that celebrated the New Year. A story of promise, hope and better times ahead, the original Ukrainian lyrics recount how a swallow promises a household wealth for the following spring….

The song was first performed in 1916 but lost popularity when Ukraine got swallowed up into the Soviet Union.

The main melody is passed seamlessly around the choir, while the lower parts maintain the bell-like ‘Ding, dong’ motif. The tenor and bass parts are encouraged to replicate the sound of a bell here, bouncing off each note onto the next, before joining the upper parts to sing ‘Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas’ in four-part harmony. The tempo of the piece seems to fluctuate depending on the interpretation, but it is usually a fast 3/4, with the conductor leading the choir on the first beat of the bar, rather than signalling every individual beat.

Who wrote the lyrics to ‘Carol of the Bells’?

Leontovych’s music wasn’t forgotten and in 1936 new lyrics were written by American composer Peter J Wilhousky, who was also of Ukranian heritage. He said that the music reminded him of hand bells, which inspired the song’s first line ‘Hark the bells’.

The legacy of ‘Carol of the Bells’ and its various interpretations

Since its inception, ‘Carol of the Bells’ it has been recorded by musicians the world over, many giving the song their own unique twist.

‘Carol of the Bells’ was given an electronic, highly choreographed treatment by American violinist Lindsey Stirling in her viral 2017 music video.

American a cappella group Pentatonix made the song its own in 2012, pairing the traditional choral textures with a beatboxer and virtuosic riffs.

Even the more traditional choral arrangements can’t help but add a bit of ‘camp’ to the tune, like this performance from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The song is given a lively, racing tempo, with the hundreds of singers joined by a group of hand bell players, a full-scale orchestra and a set of tubular bells.

It even made it onto the Hollywood film Home Alone, as Macauley Culkin’s character leaves the church to start setting the traps for the burglars. It begins as the usual choral arrangement we are familiar with, but segues into a more dramatic arrangement by John Williams, who composed the film’s score.

You can find the lyrics to Carol Of The Bells here

Find  lyrics to many of your favourite Christmas carols here

Buy recordings of ‘Carol of the Bells’

Advertisement

Want to play ‘Carol of the Bells’ over the festive period? Buy the sheet music below