Songs of the Season – Mannheim Steamroller – “Carol of the Bells”/”Shchedryk”

Now, I know I told you just a couple of days ago that one of my aims here was to share Christmas music that was primarily not played on the radio, and for anyone over 20 here, Mannheim Steamroller hardly fits that case. On the contrary, for many years, Mannheim Steamroller dominated Christmas music in a way no other group has. Their albums Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas, in particular, have now gone 6x platinum, and Christmas in the Aire, which came out in 1995, hit #3 on the Billboard Top 200 Album charts.

With just about any music that gets so monstrously popular, the danger is that it gets overplayed, and when that happens, it can seem old and stale. Furthermore, there are certain electronic sounds (with keyboards and synthesizers in particular) that are fairly particular to the 1980s, and that does make some of their recordings sound dated as well.

However, if there’s one song that Mannheim Steamroller absolutely set the standard for, it was “Carol of the Bells”. It’s a pretty song, but it’s a tough one – there are parts that are fairly monotonous, especially for an instrumental, and where it’s not monotonous, it’s difficult. It’s also not a good solo song at all because one needs the different parts on top of each other to pull together the magic.

The first known Ukrainian recording of Shchedryk from 1922.

Before Mannheim Steamroller, apart from some of the parts had changed, but most of the arrangements were very similar.

The Lawrence Welk Show from 1980

(Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters – a brilliant pianist and arranger – did some interesting work with Carol of the Bells in the 1970s, but it didn’t have the impact that Mannheim Steamroller would.)

When Mannheim Steamroller’s version came out in 1988, and it was amazing – it changed the way this song is recorded and performed ever since. All of a sudden, it went from a filler tune of choruses and piano books to something new and driving and dynamic.

This could be classified as rock, but it’s also old-fashioned with all the chimes and orchestra instruments. This has an amazing amount of drums, which was unusual for traditional Christmas music. Chip Davis also wrote an awful lot of interlude music to make the piece a lot more musically interesting, and from there, not only did this song become immensely popular, it has changed the way the song is performed ever since in almost every genre.

There’s hardly a version of “Carol of the Bells” that I’ve heard since where I don’t hear the influence of the Mannheim Steamroller version. Most of them seem to have the same sort of tempo, a very strong sense of rhythm, whether there be drums or not, many of them have gone forth and come up with new interludes… Just listen…

Trans-Siberian Orchestra – in some ways very similar to Mannheim Steamroller as a mix of rock and classical
Celtic Woman
Lindsey Stirling

Even in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it – notice the tempo and the insertion of interludes here…

Joshua Messick – solo hammered dulcimer

Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – while this goes back to mostly a traditional choral setting, there are definitely elements – tempo, dynamics, trumpets and such – that are still reminiscent of Mannheim Steamroller.

And even when you think that you’ve found a version that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the Mannheim Steamroller version, you just can’t get away… Check out the conductor’s comment at the beginning here!

Ironically, in the original Ukrainian, it’s not a Christmas song, but one for New Year’s. Here is an actual Ukrainian translation version of the original Shchedryk (Щедрик).

Now, my original intent wasn’t to get so far into “Carol of the Bells” but the post took on a life of its own once I got to writing. My main point remains, though, that the Mannheim Steamroller version of “Carol of the Bells” is not only genius and epic, but it is still a major influence on how people think of the song today. When one can hear it “fresh” again, it certainly still is genius and beautiful to listen to.

I’ve set up a playlist on YouTube with these versions (and more), which can be found here:

Anyone have a different favorite version of “Carol of the Bells”?

dore canto 31 white rose

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