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A Sound Education

Requiem of the Bells

Christmas toast copy

"Ding-dong, ding-dong
Ding-dong, ding-dong
Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away"

Peter Wilhousky / Mykola Leontovich

This time of year can be joyous, especially for holiday music lovers. Christmas tunes flow out of stores and TV sets, and holiday concerts fill December's weekends. But with Christmas being so commercialized these days, you can get pretty sick of the constant yule soundtrack. However, I have a few favorites that I never tire of: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" by Andy Williams, "Good King Wenceslas," and "Carol of the Bells." It's a little telling that two of my top picks are ancient by pop song standards. The melody of "Good King Wenceslas" was based on the 13th century Finnish carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("Eastertime has come"), and the lyrics were changed in 1853 by John Mason Neale to tell the story of the real-life 10th century Bohemian King Wenceslas.

The melody of "Carol of the Bells" is based on the very old Ukrainian New Year's folk song "Shchedryk," which means "bountiful evening." In 1914, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych took the first 4 notes of "Shchedryk" that we're all so familiar with, and wrote a Christmas carol for the Ukrainian Republic Chorus. The first public performance was by students at Kiev University in 1916, but when the Soviet Union soon gained control of Ukraine, it fell out of public awareness. When the Ukrainian National Chorus toured Europe and the Americas in 1919, it became very popular with western audiences.

In the 1930s, American composer Peter J. Wilhousky, who is of Ukrainian descent, penned new lyrics for the carol. Wilhousky, who was an arranger for NBC's Symphony Orchestra, said he started off the lyrics with "Hark! How the bells" because the melody reminded him of hand bells. The carol would be heard during the Depression by millions on NBC's vast radio network. In the 1940s when several artists started to record the carol, it gained even more popularity. In 1947, Minna Louis Hohman wrote a variation based on the nativity called "Ring, Christmas Bells." Two other versions of lyrics were written in the following decades. In the 1970s, an acapella version of "Carol of the Bells" by the French vocal group The Swingle Singers was used in an André champagne television commercial. This was a very popular commercial, and I remember it well when it played every Christmas season for several years.

Now to address the white elephant in the room. The first four notes of "Carol of the Bells" are also the first four notes of Dies irae, The Day of Wrath. Doom and gloom. The text is based on a medieval Latin poem about Judgment Day – you know, when God either delivers the saved to Heaven or casts the unsaved into Hell. That dates back to at least the 13th century, perhaps as far back as the 7th century. It was later set to Gregorian Chant, which is a simple single tone (and later polyphonic) melody. This was mostly used for Roman Catholic funeral masses.

You know the song, but you probably don't realize it. Since the 1600s, composers have been either blatantly using the melody, or sneaking parts of it into works by altering the rhythm, order of notes, or key. It's in the Dorian mode (only the white piano keys) and in 4/4. The first measure, the most famous (or infamous), comprises eight simple eighth notes. Let's sing along carolers:

"Di-es i-rae di-es il-la."

Oh no, what did you just chant?! Did you just raise the dead from the grave? Will God's wrath rain down on us?! Don't worry, you just said "Day of wrath! O day of mourning!" You can go ahead and try the melody with the English words for fun. It's quite the catchy tune, if you're into death and doom and gloom. Classical composers like Haydn snatched the melody to signal impending doom or death. In the later Romantic period, Berlioz, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, and Holtz incorporated the deadly notes into their works.

When serious films began playing to audiences in the early 1900s, live music was often played to audiences before talkies came along. Contemporary music was too atonal and out of reach for most audiences, so composers fell back onto music from the Romantic era (ca. 1825-1900) for inspiration. Often highly emotive and sweeping, it seemed to easily connect the film to the audience. When talkies came along in the late 1920s and became established during the Depression, film composers like Erich Korngold looked back to greats such as Richard Wagner and his "Ring" operas for thematic melodies and leitmotifs (a recurring music phrase for a character, place or idea). Bernard Hermann followed suit and used Dies irae in the main theme for Citizen Kane (1941), Gerald Fried scores it in the opening theme of Dracula Returns (1958), Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind start The Shining (1980) with the full eight notes, and Jerry Goldsmith uses it in Poltergeist (1982), just to name a very few of the hundreds and hundreds of instances of its use in movies, television, theater, and games.

John Williams would look back to Korngold and Wagner when crafting his epic movie scores for Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Home Alone (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), and many others. Williams was a prolific borrower of the Dies irae theme, even incorporating it into the main theme of Star Wars. The shark music in Jaws is based on Dies irae (it starts on the second note-F-G-E-G). and in Home Alone, "Carol of the Bells" is being sung by a choir in church when he marvelously blends it into the "Old Man Marley" leitmotif that relies heavily on Dies irae. The notes didn't change, only the sinister accompaniment. So even John Williams heard the chilling death tune in "Carol of the Bells."

Is the old Ukrainian folk song a warning? An omen? A call for judgment day? The original "Shchedryk" was sang to welcome in a new year. But several hundred years ago in the Ukraine, the new year started in April. It can be thought of as a "rebirth," much like death and ascension into heaven. When Christianity and the Julian calendar came to the Ukraine, the new year moved to January and the song became associated with the Feast of Epiphany, a Christian celebration of the revelation. It's possible that someone carried the tune from a Roman Catholic region of Europe into the Ukraine where it was assimilated into the culture. But my guess is that it's just a big cowinkiedink. There are only 12 notes in western music, so stumbling onto the same sequence – albeit with a different rhythm – was bound to happen. I hope that when the composer had that eureka moment, they toasted everyone around them with a glass of André champagne and exclaimed, "It's a song for drinking champagne and ringing bells!"