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Friday, December 12, 2014

A teenage dream

Peter J. Wilhousky was a popular American composer, educator, and choral conductor who left a legacy that will last for generations – especially at Christmas.   The son of Ukrainian immigrants, he grew up in New York City where he was part of the famed Rusyn Cathedral Boys Choir selected to perform at the White House one Christmas.  While there, he was impressed by beautiful silver bells used to decorate the White House that year.   He jotted down notes of their image, hoping he could be use them some day in a either a poem or a song. 

Two years later, while still singing with the group, Wilhousky, now age 19, sang in an all-Ukrainian songfest, performing a New Year’s song called “Schchedryk.” Just beginning music studies at the school that was to become known as The Julliard School of Music, Wilhousky started thinking about how to use the lilting music from the song to do a piece for Christmas.  He dusted off his notes from the earlier White House visit and started writing.  The result was “Carol of the Bells,” still one of our all-time favorites.

No “one-hit wonder” Wilhousky wrote or arranged dozens of songs, including an arrangement of what is arguably the best version ever of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”   As a high school senior, I was fortunate to be chosen for All-State Choir and our concluding song – accompanied by the All-State Band and Orchestra – was his soaring rendition.  I had no idea at the time that this was arranged by the same person who wrote “Carol of the Bells,” now one of the most recorded Christmas songs of all time.  And it definitely never occurred to me that the idea for the song was first written down by someone who was 17, my own age at the time.  Creativity, as I’ve said before, is not limited by youth or by age.

Peter Wilhousky at age 33 

Here is a link to the beautiful song shaped by a teenager who had the foresight to jot down words about things from his world that inspired him.  A creative opportunity that has, in turn, thrilled generations of performers and listeners – a writer’s moment, indeed.

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