Do you know what music was first played in space back in 1965? No, it wasn’t classic Bach fugues, nor was it Jean-Michel Jarre’s laser ambient. It was Jingle Bells – those universally beloved Christmas-carol bells! It was this cheerful tune, created in the suburbs of Boston 165 years ago, that was first heard by aliens.
But this is not the whole story behind the song and melody. Also included in our holiday “playlist”: the history of two other most-performed Christmas compositions. One of them is Shchedryk, better known to the world as Carol of the Bells, by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich, and the other, The Nutcracker by the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker, by the way, is not a purely Russian but quite a cosmopolitan work of art.
Today, it is impossible to imagine the season of winter holidays without these melodies that have become synonymous with Christmas itself. Previous generations already enjoyed them a century ago: you will see evidence of it in our slide show, where you can see archival photos and hear how these melodies sounded and what the Christmas holiday looked like back then – with Christmas trees, holiday gifts, and folks who enjoyed them in Boston and beyond.
More about all this can be found in our article. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Be healthy and happy!
Jingle Bells, this American “folk song”, which has become one of the most famous compositions of all time, was written in the 19th century by James Lord Pierpont. The song was born in Medford, a suburb of Boston, in 1857 and was originally named The One-Horse Open Sleigh. In the beginning, the melody was different, more complex and reminiscent of the classical Mozart pieces that were then in trend. It seems that Pierpont himself had no idea that he was creating a super hit for the ages.
Legend has it that the author lost a bet to his landlady in a petty argument, and she offered to repay her with a Thanksgiving song.
This holiday, as we know, originated in Massachusetts in gratitude to the land and the Indians who sheltered the pilgrims, and is celebrated annually in November. How did it happen that this song makes no mention of the Thanksgiving holiday, and how did it turn into a Christmas carol instead?
In 1857, the song was born under the title The One-Horse Open Sleigh. But two years later, a new version of it was recorded, called Jingle Bells. Rumor has it that the same landlady, who remained unknown, advised replacing “sleigh” with “bells” in the text, obviously finding bells more romantic. Although the sleigh was in those times a more romantic place: after all, there the girl and the guy could spend some time together during a ride. That’s what Pierpont’s playful song was about. But who remembers this now! Soon the whole of America, and later the whole world, picked up the melody, repeating the rhythm of the horse run and the ringing of bells.
This musical hit became so popular that two cities in the United States make rival claims to being its birthplace. A plaque in the Boston suburb of Medford says that Pierpont wrote his famous tune while sipping a drink at the local Simpson tavern in 1850. But this is unlikely, because the author would hardly wait seven years before releasing his hit. In addition, according to research, Pierpont was then in the gold mines in California, driven by a thirst for adventure. So, most likely, Jingle Bells wasn’t born until 1857.
And in 1985, the city of Savannah, Georgia, erected its own historic memorial to the famous tune, across from the Unitarian church where Pierpont was music director at the time when the song was published.
Why exactly this carol became so popular and its author went down in history as the author of a single song, is difficult to know. But we know for sure that this was the Song! The stars must have been aligned this way, and Pierpont’s unsuccessful search for gold was compensated with a golden find in music. What a Christmas miracle!
Speaking of stars, Jingle Bells was the first song played in space. Nine days before Christmas 1965, two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 pranked Mission Control by saying they saw an object that looked like a satellite going north to south in polar orbit. But soon the “report” about an unidentified flying object was suddenly interrupted by the sound of Jingle Bells: one of the astronauts, Wally Schirra, performed it on a tiny harmonica. His colleague Tom Stafford rang to the beat with a handful of small bells, which he specially took with him on board.
Jingle Bells was recorded and performed by such world-famous musicians as Glenn Miller and his swing orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Boney M, and others.
Shchedryk is version of a carol that is sung while going around the neighborhood with the wishes of all the blessings for Christmas and receiving rewards from grateful neighbors. Such carols are common in the Slavic New Year tradition. And at the end of the Christmas Lent, when a generous treat appears on the tables – meat, pies, sweets, etc. – in Ukraine and some other countries of Eastern Europe, “wandering singers” perform Schedrovka (literally it means “a song of generosity”.) Hence the derivative name Shchedryk.
For the first time, this melody written as a choral work by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich (1877–2021), was heard in America 100 years ago. And in December 2022, it was performed twice in New York by the Children’s Choir of Ukraine – as a flash mob at Penn Station and on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The English version, Carol of the Bells, is arguably the most performed Christmas carol.
Let us tell a little more about Carol of the Bells and its author, who became one of the most famous composers in the history of Ukraine.
Leontovich worked on the world-famous Shchedryk almost all his life. The first version of the song was written in 1901-1902, the second, in 1906-1908, the third, in 1914, the fourth, in 1916, and finally the fifth, in 1919. Shchedryk was first performed by the Kyiv University Choir in 1916, conducted by the composer himself. The song brought the author a huge success, and his name became widely known in musical circles and among the general public.
After its first performance at Carnegie Hall, Shchedryk became so popular that in 1936, Peter Wilhousky (1902–1978), an American composer and choir conductor of Ukrainian origin, composed the English lyrics for the song. The melody reminded Wilhousky of a chime (bells again!), which he tried to convey in his version. Peter Wilhousky not only wrote the text, but also adapted the melody, focusing on the theme of the mesmerizing ringing of bells. In 1936, Peter Wilhousky copyrighted his version of Shchedryk. But the main thing is that the melody with Ukrainian roots appealed to millions of people in America and dozens of other countries.
American recordings of various artists singing and playing Shchedryk began to appear on the radio in the 1940s. The song gained even more popularity when, in the 1970s, it was performed a cappella in a television advertisement for champagne by the French group The Swingle Singers. Carol of the Bells has been recorded in over 150 versions and reworkings for various vocal and instrumental compositions.
Shchedryk has become entrenched in the musical culture of the West under the name Carol of the Bells. To this day, many American choirs, professional and amateur, sing this piece at Christmas.
And a little more about the author of this Christmas hit, Mykola Leontovich, who is called “the Ukrainian Bach” for his huge contribution to the development of choral music.
Leontovich was born on December 13, 1877, in the village of Monastyrok, Vinnytsia region, in the family of a priest. He received his primary musical education from his parents. His father, Dmitry Leontovich, played the violin, guitar, cello, double bass, and led a choir of seminarians. His mother Maria loved to sing and instilled in her son a love for Ukrainian folk songs.
At the age of less than 15, Mykola graduated from the Shargorod primary theological school and entered the theological seminary in Kamyanets-Podilsky, where he learned to play the violin, piano, and wind instruments.
Later, the Leontovich family moved to the Donbass region, to the Grishino station (now Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, occupied by Russian troops in 2022). There, Mykola taught singing and music, and also organized a chapel of railway workers.
In the 1920s, life in Ukraine was difficult and dangerous. Many rival groups vied for power in the country (The Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), the Bolsheviks, the White Guards, etc.). Mykola rejected the Bolshevik regime of Russia, which eventually seized power in a vast portion of Ukrainian territory. He was a supporter of the independence of Ukraine. In January 1921, at the age of 43, Mykola Leontovich was shot dead by a KGB agent in his father’s house.
But in the memory of many generations, “the Ukrainian Bach” will forever remain the author of his immortal Shchedryk, which fascinates and inspires hope to this day.
It is hard to imagine Christmas without the fairy tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a bright, unique, and most famous children’s performance created 130 years ago.
Its history is very cosmopolitan: the music for the ballet was written by the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky to a libretto by the Frenchman Marius Petipa based on a fairy tale by the German author Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, which was interpreted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas fils. This two-act ballet has become the most recognizable, the most performed, and the most popular ballet in the history of ballet art.
Despite the preservation of the main storyline of the fairy tale about Clara, Fritz, and the Nutcracker, Dumas’ translation was a new version of it – not scary, in the manner of German fairy tales of that time, but full of Christmas fun and miracles. In Dumas’ version, we see both the handsome prince and the symbolic sleigh, which, like in Jingle Bells, takes the heroine to the land of her dreams. And, of course, good wins in it, and evil – the Mouse King – is depicted as unable to project awe and fear.
It is noteworthy that Tchaikovsky composed the music for The Nutcracker in real creative agony, even in deep grief; while he was working on the ballet, his beloved sister Alexandra died. He learned about her death by chance, from the newspapers, as the relatives tried to conceal this traumatizing loss from the composer. The tragic theme is heard in the second act of the ballet, where the suffering and sad memories of Tchaikovsky manifest themselves in his magnificent music. The resulting contrast between celebration and tragedy became the leitmotif of a work of genius.
Another important feature is that children have always taken part in this ballet: after all, this fairy tale was written for them. This tradition is continued by The Boston Ballet under the leadership of Mikko Nissenen, a Finnish performer who danced with The Dutch National Ballet and The San Francisco Ballet and is the Artistic Director of The Boston Ballet since 2002.
If someone happens not to have seen The Nutcracker on theater stage or read the fairy tale, here’s a brief storyline.
The Stahlbaum family prepares for their annual Christmas Eve party. The house is decorated with garlands and wreaths, candles are burning, and in the center of all this splendor is a Christmas tree with gifts under it. The Stahlbaum children, Fritz and Clara, are looking forward to the start of the holiday.
In the midst of the party, a mysterious guest in dark attire appears. This frightens Fritz, but not Clara, who recognizes the visitor as her godfather, the toymaker Drosselmeier. He gives dolls to all the girls, and Clara receives the main gift: a wooden Nutcracker. Her brother Fritz, out of jealousy, throws the toy on the floor and breaks his leg. But Clara puts the Nutcracker to bed and falls asleep by his side under the Christmas tree.
In a dream, many fabulous events happen to Clara. She and the Nutcracker bravely fight the mice and defeat the Mouse King himself, after which, the Nutcracker turns into a handsome prince, and a sleigh takes him and Clara to the land of sweets with creamy mountains, where they are met by the Sugar Plum Fairy. After all the adventures, Clara wakes up under the Christmas tree, clutching her Nutcracker in her arms.
It is best to watch this wonderful ballet on a long winter evening, enjoy the wonderful music, and see your most secret dreams come true – if you really want them to, especially on New Year’s Eve!
Happy New Year and Merry Christmas!
The international team of cEventa, with greetings from Boston, New York, Kyiv, Geneva, Zagreb, Wroclaw, and Burgas. Our company was founded in 1996, and since 2013 we have been supervising the iLike.Boston information project under the auspices of our state administration.
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