A Tree With Deep Roots:
The Bells and Chimes of Russia

Vladimir P. Korzh, AKIR

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Bells always had a difficult life in Russia, but the XXth century turned out to be the most tragic part of their history. Darkened by human cruelty, the empty windows of bell-towers gaze down at us deprecatingly all over Great Russia. It makes one shudder to think of the ignorance, the belligerent vulgarity and vandalism of the home-bred "torch-bearers" who in the recent past fought to outdo one another in destroying our national culture.

The destruction of temples and church property started immediately after the revolution, but not until 1929 did this devastating process get into full swing. Perhaps bells suffered the greatest damage. Official propaganda called the use of church bells for the needs of "the industrial revolution". Indeed the total weight of all Russian church-bells at the time comprised 250,000 metric tons, while the country yielded only 27,000 metric tons of copper a year.

It is miraculous that despite this total barbarity the bells kept tolling— though growing fewer in number, often inadequate in quality, sometimes replaced by gas containers, ship-bells, boilers, etc. Yet, Russian bell-music stuck it out and retained its roots. It preserved for our generation its uniquenesses, its inimitable spirituality. What can account for such tenacity? What makes the bell such an amazing phenomenon in Russia?

The answers to these questions there are in ancient manuscripts, archives, descriptions of Russian monasteries, in the works of some musicians of the past, and the memoirs of foreign travelers who visited Russia. That's a huge body material, which cannot be used within the framework of one article. But the main idea is obvious: the zvon, or sound of the bell is one of the most powerful roots of our national culture.

This art is as important and unique as our singing, icon-painting, architecture, or folk crafts. For centuries folk musicians— bell-ringers— have created a real symphony of bell-sounds: everyday bell-sounds, funeral bell-sounds, festive bell-sounds, "red" (beautiful), wedding zvons, and many others, which express every possible emotional state.

In our country there are many places of pilgrimage, sacred places, among them the Moscow Kremlin, the Kulikovo Field, the Mamaev Hill in Volgograd. Yet another place is especially worth mentioning— Rostov the Great, in the Yaroslavl Region, whose enthusiasts spared no pains to restore the local bells. One ought to see and hear them, their boundless, mysterious, powerful tolling— it a song of the Motherland, of the Russian people, a genuine folk song. The most resonant sounds are those of "Sisoy"— the largest bell in service in Europe. It weighs 32 metric tons (about 80 US tons). It was cast in 1688 by Flor Terentjev.

Great Russian composers also used the zvon of Russia's bells in their creations. They live in our operas and symphonies— in Tschaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninov.

It is time for all of us to realize that a rootless tree cannot survive.

The Russian Miracle

The first bells must have come to Russia from the Catholic West in the Xth-XIth centuries. In the chronicles of the XIIth to the first half of the XVth centuries, we find several references to bells. These were still very rare, though, and small in size; and according to the chronicles, were often destroyed in fires, in our internecine wars, and in battles against Tatar and Mongol invaders.

Not until the XVIth century did the tradition of bell-ringing take real root in Russia. For our vast territories the sound of bells came in very useful. In the free towns of Pskov and Novgorod the regular and powerful strokes of the "Vjeche"-bell called people to popular assembly (to the "vjeche" in ancient Russian). During snowstorms, a resonant "road"-bell helped traveler to find their way. If a fire broke out or an enemy was approaching the town— the alarm-bell began to toll. If the enemy was already at the town wall the "siege"-bell thundered. Moreover, there is evidence that Russian bells in a way substituted for newspapers. Bells resounding from settlement to settlement broke good and bad news, informed of joys and sorrows. If an eminent person was on his way, the bell let people know about this as well. Of course, mere signal bells had little to do with musical art so far, but this is where this art of Russian bell music originated. Each type of signal differed from the others in rhythm and timbre, i.e. in the character of their musical tone. In other words, even signal bells had an inherent musicality, which talented people did not fail to notice.

It was a miracle! Russia had begun to use bells later than many other countries, and yet developed the largest bell-casting industry in the world. Chronicles of the XVIth century and beyond are full of references to bells. At the end of the XIXth century, Henry Otte (the author of the book "A Study of Bells", Leipzig, 1884) sums it up: "As far as the number of bells is concerned, Russia surpasses all the other countries in the world. Her churches have an abundance of bells of all kinds and sizes; in Moscow alone there are up to 1700 bells".

Bell-ringing became a constituent part of Christian ceremony, and this was the decisive factor of its spreading all over Russia. You can't imagine Russia without temples, church choirs, fresco-paintings— or bells. The Orthodox Church created a unique combination of religion and art that permeated every aspect of life. A professor of the Moscow Theological Academy, Metropolitan Pitirim, is quite justified to observe: "Whatever our attitude to the introduction of Christianity in Russia might be, there is no denying its dramatic influence on Russian culture and Russian statehood. One cannot help remembering that it was the church that rallied the national forces which threw off the Tatar-Mongol yoke, saved Russia in the years of trouble and in the ordeal of wars". Bells became the voice to which the nation responded.

The churches of Europe were equipped with organs: The most outstanding composers created organ music which expresses the highest of human values. There were no organs in Russia. Instead, church bells tolled with all their might, expressing the Russian's innate spirituality. As part and parcel of Church ceremony, the zvon marks the beginning and the end of the Liturgy and provides a framework of heavenly sounds for the Church service. "The zvon makes you forget all your earthly thoughts and elevates you to the heavenly heights. It fills your heart with a warm, joyous feeling; you seem to be in Heaven, and far-off Paradise resounds in your heart, filling your soul with joy and hope" (N. Olovianishnikov. "The History of Bells and the Art of Bell Casting")

Western Europe developed the technique of swinging the bell while its tongue remained motionless, in other words it was the bell that hit the tongue. Movement of the mouth of the bell to a horizontal position provided wider broadcast of the sound, but at the same time, this tolling technique inhibited increase of the size or weight of bells, since getting the entire bell to move was no easy task even for several bell-ringers. Yet, that was only part of the matter.

The tolling technique adopted in Western Europe caused some queer situations. For instance, in 1874 the bell-tower of the Cologne Cathedral was adorned with what was by German standards a huge bell— it weighed 26,7 tons. But the bell turned out to be ... "dumb". According to the laws of mechanics the bell and its tongue were brought in sync and moved in the same direction. This was how the bell got the name of "the Great Silence Keeper". The increase of weight was fraught with another serious danger. While being swung, a large bell gradually tends to make the bell-tower shaky, which could cause irreparable damage. That was the reason why at the end of last century many bells stopped tolling, among them the largest bell of St. Stevens's cathedral in Vienna (12 tons), and the largest bell of Notre Dame in Paris.

Russian musicians who rang bells used a different technique: it was not the bell that swung and hit the motionless clapper, but the bell-ringer who moved the tongue of the bell to produce the most elaborate rhythms. And this technique stimulated the artistic development of bell ringing.

"One man can rings three or four bells at a time; he takes the rope of the bells he is ringing in hands, and spools the other ropes round his elbow, and thus he pulls one rope after another; naturally, bell-ringers must have a knack for tolling to do it properly" (Adam Oleary).

There is yet another reason why the zvon was so widely used in Russia. The vast lands of Russia, its boundless territory and endless roads most certainly influenced the scope of bell music. The boundlessly powerful chimes of the bell seemed to be holding space together, making man part of nature, making nature, time, and space ethically meaningful.

The bell also linked sparsely scattered settlements. One must remember that only large Russian villages had churches. Small ones did not, and on weekends parishioners went to church in the large villages which united the smaller settlements. The appealing sound of the bell established the connection between the larger villages and the smaller ones. That was why it was so important that bell-tolling should be heard for miles and miles around.

These are the reasons why bells became so widespread in Russia, in a way that reflects a deep national particularity, a national identity. This is where the meaning of the Russian miracle lies.

The Art of Casting Gigantic Bells

A chronicle of the XIVth century preserves the first mention of the famous Russian bell-caster who was popularly called Borisko, whose name is inscribed on the largest bells.

More "autographs" have survived on bells cast in later centuries. As mentioned above, the XVIth century was when the art of bell-casting really began to flourish. It was then that great temples with belfries and bell-towers were built, families of bell-casting artisans emerged, local schools were formed, and Russian founders mastered the art of casting gigantic bells.

An inscription on a bell of the late XVIth century remembers the Motorins, one of the most famous families of bell-founders. The famous Tsar-bell is connected with the names of Muscovite bell-casters who step by step learned to make larger bells, and above all with name of the Motorin family. In 1730 Empress Anna loanovna issued a decree, ordering the bell weight 10,000 puds (1 pud =16 kg). The mission to cast such bell was eventually entrusted to Ivan Motorin. By this time Ivan Motorin was already the famous owner of a large foundry, and the creator of several large bells.

Yet it was no easy task to cast bell of this size. Accidents and emergencies several times required prompt action, halting the process, and an explosion even occurred when the metal was being poured. But even after this accident, work was resumed. Nonetheless, on the 19th of August 1735, Motorin died, and his closest assistant took over— his son Mikhail.

In the long run everything ended well, and on the 25th of November 1735 everybody was able to see the giant bell. It was a unique work of art, a masterpiece of bell-casting: it weighed 201,924 kg; its height was 6,14 meters, its diameter was 6,60 meters. Another two years were devoted to polishing the bell, to decorating it and to making the inscriptions before the beauty of the bell was finally revealed.

Contemporaries were staggered by the sight. Never before had bell-casting known such splendid ornamentation and magnificent bas-reliefs. Empress Anna Ioanovna, who had commissioned the bell, was sculpted in full-size in her coronation dress. The bell was decorated with the figures of angels and the icons of saints; a very delicate decorative design adorned the upper belt, and the lower was adorned with large flowers.

But the wondrous bell was in for trouble. In May 1737 a devastating fire broke out in the Kremlin. Wooden structures around the bell caught fire, and timbers fell into the casting pit, where the bell was still being prepared. To put out the fire and prevent the bell from melting water was poured over it. But as a result of supercooling the overheated metal broke, and a chunk of metal weighing 11.5 metric (25 US) tons fell off.

For years, or. to be more precise, for 101 years and seven months, the Tsar-bell remained in the casting pit. In 1820 they cleaned up the pit and made a down staircase to inspect the bell. Only in 1836 the bell was raised and established on the octagonal pedestal where it stands today.

The Mystery Of The Zvon

There are components in the sound of a bell which affect our perception and can call up peculiar musical images. And the sound of the bell is a much more complex phenomenon than the sound of any other musical instrument or human voice.

Bell bronze deserves a special mention. Humankind has chosen the best possible alloy for bells: four fifth of copper and one fifth of tin account for the famous alloy. Its advantages are obvious, it does not yield to either corrosion or vibration; but its major asset is its musicality. Bronze is an exceptionally sonorous alloy. No additions of other metal can improve the quality of its sound. There is a legend, which has been handed down from generation to generation, about the impact of silver on the quality of bell-sounds (hence the song, "Silver Bells"), but it is no more than a legend.

Bronze cast into a specific, unique pattern is the major secret, the wonderful mystery of the voice of a bell— or one should say rather, voices, for every bell resounds with an inherent polyphony: for one of the peculiarities of a bell is its capacity to produce clearly audible overtones, which sometimes are as resonant as the main tone.

Bell-tolling is mysterious in yet another way. When you hear the strokes of a big bell you cannot help being fascinated. Its voice attracts you like magnet, it fills you with elation and the anticipation of something mysterious. The fact is, big bells produce subsonic vibrations. Recent research has shown that though subsonics fall below our ability to hear them, they can produce a tremendous impact on a person. "The perception of the sound of a bell is amazing. Its music is divinely beautiful and extremely complicated, it is next to impossible to interpret it" (K. Saradjev).

The zvon has a curative property as well. A group of researchers under the direction of a Russian candidate in biological sciences, F.Shipunov, has established that bells work as ultrasonic generators, and ultrasound destroys a morbific environment. The influence of a bell on the soul condition of the man, his sanity is great. For many years, psychiatrist A. Gnezdilov of St. Petersburg has successfully treated many mental diseases by placing his patients under the sounding of bells. Hundreds have been healed.

The Art Of the Zvon

The zvon is usually preceded by a two-part introduction. The pattern of the first part of the introduction, the blagovest or "annunciation", is one of uniform: slow, regular strokes on a mid-size bell. This kind of tolling signals that church services will soon begin. The sounds of the blagovest, or annunciator, urge parishioners to make haste. No doubt, this introductory chiming is very old and goes back a long way.

The second part of the introduction merges into zvon proper. What is curious about it is that these introductions are never alike, though bell-ringers learn from one another and try to reproduce the music they liked. What is behind this phenomenon? The matter is that variability is inherent in bell-ringing, as well as in any other folk art. When Russian bell-ringers selected bells it did not matter whether they made up a series of tones arranged in order of pitch; the major criterion was the individual quality of their sounds. This is what made each belfry a unique musical instrument with a specific set of bells. This is what accounts for such a variety of tunes Russian bell-ringers could play. And no doubt, the individual talents of the ringers themselves contributed to the wealth of bell-music.

People still remember how magnificently Konstantin Saradjev rang the bell. A "born" bell-ringer, he was famous in Moscow in the 20s and 30s. He had an unequalled ear for music. Most people can hear 12 sounds in an octave, but he could distinguish 1701 sounds! In his opinion the bell was the most perfect musical instrument, because the bell has an abundance of tones and semi-tones that merge and blend like the colors of a rainbow, and suddenly clash in conflict— until the discord begins to flutter and quiver in a weird mixture of sounds lending to it a note of alarm and despair.

The fame of the wonderful musician resounded across borders. In 1930 he was invited to the United States. They promised to and did build a belfry for him in Harvard, they bought bells necessary for his concerts in Russian.

For a year Konstantin Saradjev represented Russian art abroad, his concerts of bell-music were a great success.

It might seem incredible, but the musician, who was our contemporary, managed to recognize in the ancient art enormous artistic possibilities for the future.

"Since early childhood...I could distinguish many more sounds around me than the others...I was surrounded by a colossal mass of tones, which made up the core of a fiery nucleus radiating music. And the impact of the elaborate combinations of these sounds can not stand comparison with any musical instrument— only the music of a bell can express at least part of the grandeur and power which will be within the capacity of the human ear in future. It will. I'm quite sure of it".

No matter how hard bell-ringers try to reproduce each other's music, each of them retains his unique individuality. Moreover, replaying introductory chimes once and again talented bell-ringers try to find new sound-combinations.

Traditional Russian bell-ringing and folk-singing have very much in common. They have similar roots. In fact, for any bell-ringer a folk song is a model to live up to and imitate. This is why we can find many parallels between folk-singing and bell-ringing. Just like in a folk-song, in the sounds of bells we can distinguish soprano, alto and bass "voices"; "alto" voices usually play the lead as their range coincides with that of a human voice.

The art of bell-ringing requires much further serious research and study. At the beginning of the 1970s U. Puchnatchov, a mathematician from Moscow, V. Lokhansky, a musician from Archangelsk, musicologists L. Blagoveschenskaya from Novosibirsk and A. Yareshko from Saratov, independently of one another, all began to study the art of bell-ringing. In 1989 they created the Campanological Arts Association of Russia ("AKIR"). The Association has united scientists, musicologists, artists, bell-ringers, casters from different cities of Russia. It publishes articles devoted to the study of this art, tries to locate surviving ancient bells of cultural value, casts new bells, organizes schools of training for bell-ringers, and produces concerts and festivals of bell music. The Association is establishing links with its counterparts abroad. It spares no pains toward the restoration of the glory of bell-music and to oversee the return of bells to functioning churches, where they belong, AKIR is helping to make up for the damage done. When we hear the sound of bells or the sound of folk songs, we know that Russia and Russian people are alive.


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