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100 years ago, 'Carol of the Bells' came to America — from Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The sudden fortes struck like blows. The swells were like the heave of the deep sea.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That was how the New York Herald described a concert at Carnegie Hall the night of October 5, 1922.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHCHEDRYK")

UKRAINIAN NATIONAL CHORUS: (Singing in non-English language).

KELLY: It was the American premiere of the Ukrainian National Chorus. And one song in particular stood out. It was called "Shchedryk."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UKRAINIAN NATIONAL CHORUS: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: This recording is from that same year. But this chorus wasn't just a chorus. It was a musical answer to a political question.

MARIKA KUZMA: How can we assert Ukrainian identity around the world at a time when people are just becoming conscious that we are a nation?

KELLY: Marika Kuzma's parents fled Ukraine during World War II. She has spent decades leading choirs around the U.S. After World War I, there were various efforts to establish an independent Ukraine. Ultimately, Russia would declare Ukraine part of the Soviet Union in December 1922. But earlier that year, Ukrainian nationalists made their case on the New York stage.

KUZMA: They got together, and they said, we'll make a choir, and we'll sing our music all around the world. And that will let people know that we are a separate language. We are a separate culture. We are a separate country. So that's how this little carol became so powerful.

SHAPIRO: Of course, most of us know this little carol as "Carol Of The Bells," a name it was given more than a decade after that concert at Carnegie Hall. "Shchedryk" had been written a few years earlier by a Ukrainian composer named Mykola Leontovych, who adapted it from a folk song. It became the centerpiece of the chorus's performance as it toured Europe, then America.

KELLY: In 1936, an American composer named Peter Wilhousky wrote English lyrics to the song, giving it a Christmasy flavor and calling it "Carol Of The Bells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Hark, how the bells - sweet, silver bells - all seem to say, throw cares away. Christmas...

KELLY: Almost immediately, "Carol Of The Bells" entered the canon of American Christmas music. Over the years, it's become ubiquitous. You might know it from the 1990 movie "Home Alone."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOME ALONE")

MACAULAY CULKIN: (As Kevin) Merry Christmas.

KELLY: Or remember that novelty NBA ad from 2012?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALLS DRIBBLING)

SHAPIRO: Along the way, for most Americans, the history of the song got buried. Well, now, 100 years after that concert at Carnegie Hall and as Ukraine fights another war with Russia, some Ukrainian musicians are digging it up.

KELLY: On Sunday, there will be another concert at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the centenary of that iconic 1922 performance and to raise money for Ukraine as the fighting there continues. Ukrainian choirs and soloists will sing "Shchedryk" and other folk songs in their original forms.

MARICHKA MARCZYK: Being a part of this important event, you know, it's responsibility. It's happiness. It's like everything. That's the hearts of - all emotional specter.

SHAPIRO: Marichka Marczyk will be one of the soloists. She lives in Toronto but was born in Kyiv and still has family back home. The war is never far from her mind.

MARCZYK: I'm thinking about that every single minute. My brother is on the front line, fighting for our freedom, independence for me to be free, live in a peaceful sky and sing this Ukrainian old traditional songs. So my performance I am dedicating to him and for all the Ukrainian people who is now fighting for freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHCHEDRYK")

UKRAINIAN NATIONAL CHORUS: (Singing in Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: Those lyrics in Ukrainian describe a swallow swooping into a house and calling out the master to herald a bountiful new year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHCHEDRYK")

UKRAINIAN NATIONAL CHORUS: (Singing in Ukrainian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.