Russian art of bell-ringing

A.S. Yareshko

Once upon a time there lived Ivan — the bell-ringer…
From a folk song

Bell-ringing is usually preceded by a two-part introduction. The pattern of the first, «annunciation», part — is uniform: you hear slow, regular strokes of a mid-size bell. This kind of bell-tolling signals that the church service will soon begin. The sounds of the annunciation bell seem to be urging 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 bell-ringing 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. No doubt, individual talents of bell-ringers themselves contributed to the wealth of bell-music.

Have you ever heard folk-singing? When a few folk-singers get together one of them initiates the singing. At first sight his role may seem insignificant, but, in fact, his voice unites all singers into an ensemble. The ultimate impression produced by their singing depends on the leading voice. This individual introduction to a folk song has always been its most unique part. The singer who initiates the song has a free hand to improvise, he is guided only by his creative urge, by his inspiration.

The same is true of the art of the bell-ringing. The introductory chiming depends on the bell-ringer’s sense of music, his intuition and his inspiration. It is for him to decide whether to toll one bell or more, whether to ring them successively or simultaneously; it is his individuality that determines the inimitable pattern of introductory chimes which will later merge into the main burden of his bell-music. 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.

After the introduction comes the magnificent main burden of bell-music. The wealth of its chiming and jingling, tolling and ringing is too great for words. One must hear it.

Each musical piece has its closing part, which is law for any bell-ringer. Usually, to crown it all a bell-ringer tolls the bells he has at his disposal three times. Sometimes we hear just one stroke. A more elaborate pattern of the closing part is less common.

S.Smolenski believes that «there are a lot of brilliant bell-ringers in Russia who are capable of composing a wide variety of original rhythms and tunes. Their natural talent helps them to enrich the music handed down from the bell-ringers of ancient Russia. Russian bell-ringing is a few centuries old. This folk art has always reflected the beauty and uniqueness of this land.

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. It is no accident that many early types of bell-ringing go back to folk-songs, often written to funny verses. Bell-ringers, among them G.F.Mitina from Moscow and I.N.Kamahin from Tula, have collected many examples which go to prove it.

Russian bell-ringers never tuned their bells according to the classical scales; still, guided by their own aesthetic standards they took great care to choose appropriate bells. Each belfry had a unique set of bells which ensured the harmony of bell-chimes and enabled the bell-ringer to make up inimitable bell-songs. This accounts for the extraordinary variability of bell-tolling and its close links with folk songs.

Bell-ringing can serve many purposes: hence a great variety of bell-chimes and of the messages they can convey. Local traditions also contribute to the wealth of annunciation-bells, funeral (passing) bells, everyday bells, wedding-bells, festive bells, sacring bells, etc.

For instance, since the XVIIth century Rostov has been famous for its epic bell-music (the bell-chimes of Ion, Egor, Akim, and later of Ionaphan); Suzdal is famous for its monastery and Evphimi bell-sounds, etc. Russian bell-ringers have created a special kind of festive bell-chiming. It consists of three successive parts which go to make a harmonious musical piece.

The inexhaustible inherent possibilities of each bell, the individual qualities of bell-sounds, like pitch or timbre were put to a good use in everyday life. One could hear the sounds of various signal-bells in Russia: the chimes of the annunciation bells, different in timbre and beat, called people to a church service; the alarm-bells could cither rally people for a popular assembly («vjeche» in ancient Russia — hence «vjeche»-bells) or warn them about a fire: the fire-bell was usually the most sonorous and resonant mid-size bell. Another type of the alarm bell, which had a specific timbre, rang when there was a threat of an enemy attack. The «road-bell» tolled to show the way to a traveler. There must have been many other signals as well.

There were various techniques of producing annunciation bell-sounds: 1) the bell-ringer could strike the bell-tongue against just one side of a mid-size («everyday») bell; 2) he could also strike the tongue against the second biggest bell; 3) or else he could strike the bell-tongue against both sides of the big-bell.

Such a variety of possible techniques can be easily accounted for. The big bell is rung only on very important holidays. Its powerful tolling resounds for miles around; up to a hundred chimes can be heard for a long time. First, the bell-ringer swings the bell-tongue and strikes it against the side of the bell, and then pushes it to the other side with all his might; if it is a heavy bell weighing one or more thousand poods several bell-ringers have to do the job. The regular, steady beat of the sounds produced by this technique fill the listeners with elation.

If the holiday is not so important the second biggest bell is tolled. Its tongue is smaller, and one bell-ringer can easily manage it.

On week days the so-called «everyday» bell rings.

Jingling is one of the most widespread kinds of bell-ringing in Russia. Sometimes it can be heard in the introduction to bell-tolling, or else it can make up an integral part of the main burden. Yet, there are two set patterns of jingling which are worth mentioning.

I first heard one of them at Easter about twenty years ago. Alexei Loginov, a bell-ringer from Astrachan, used to ring each bell six times in turn (the big one came first and smallest came last); this was followed by a tolling stroke of all the bells, and the jingling started up again. According to the bell-ringer, the kind of jingling could be heard only on a special occasion.

Looking through my notes I managed to find another reference to a similar kind of jingling.

Paul of Aleppo pointed out to it in his memoirs written as far back as in the XVIIth century: «In the morning I could hear the big bell and the smaller ones ring several times, each in turn; the bell sounds were calling church dignitaries to the Cathedral…» No doubt, this is one of the most ancient kinds of bell-music.

Jingling has its variations. One of them is caused by the sounds of on bell merging into the ringing of the following one. This variation of jingling was recorded in the XVIIth century. Bernhardt Tanner wrote in his book «The Journey of the Polish Ambassador to Moscow in 1678»: «They ring bells here not by swinging the bell, but by pulling the ropes fixed to it: first, they ring the smallest bell six times; next, they ring a bigger one six times and in turn they ring each bell till, finally, you hear the biggest one chime six times. This is followed by six strokes of all the bells rung simultaneously. Suddenly the jingling stops, but soon it resumes following the same musical pattern. Such jingling can be heard several times a day coming from different churches; in fact, bells are rung at the request of any passer-by, for every church is always open to everybody.»

Another variation of jingling called «passing» or «funeral» is also commonly used. First, we hear the regular tolls of each bell slowly die away, and, finally, all the bells chime at the same time. Now it is practically impossible to determine when the funeral bell-sounds were born in Russia.

According to V.Kavelmaher «all church ceremonies envolving bell-ringing go back to very early pagan funeral rituals which were accompanied by wailing and other ways of «soul salvation». This goes to prove that funeral bell-ringing goes back centuries. Of course the final musical pattern of funeral bell-ringing was established later when bell-towers were equipped with a full set of bells. Thus funeral bell-sounds embodied both pagan rituals and the Christian rite.

The powerful simultaneous tolling stroke of all the bells, which is like an outlet of human grief, goes far back to the pagan tradition of wailing over a dead person; Christianity has failed to eradicate this ritual.

Christianity was believed to have the power of soul salvation. The Christian idea of the link between Earth and Heaven found its reflection in the successive — from the high-pitch to low-pitch — jingling of bells.V.Kavelmaher believes that the first Russian churches were erected to perform the funeral rituals. On the whole funeral bell-ringing is a highly emotional polyphonic musical piece. This is how S.Smolenski describes it:«Even less elaborate bell-sounds are full of deep warm feeling. For example, funeral bell-ringing, which is heard when the deceased is being taken out of church, sounds very appropriate and touching.»

First, the main burden is repeated several times, and, next, we can hear the sounds of all bells being operated together. In this second half we never hear the cheerful, happy jingling of small bells…What is mostly appreciated here is the diminuendo of huge bells which requires great skill and ingenuity.

But even this canonic pattern of bell-sounds does not stop bell-ringers from finding individual expressive means. For example, in the village of Stebachovo (Ivanovo Region) a unique kind of funeral bell-ringing has been recorded: the successive jingling of bells is accompanied by regular chimes of the bass bell.

The pattern of everyday bell-sounds is very simple: several small bells are rung on week-days. But their music is varied. B.V.Vturin, a bell-ringer from Kostroma, makes the elaborate music of his everyday bells sound joyful and optimistic. The bell-ringers of Rostov are noted for the tunefulness and serenity of their everyday bell-sounds.

Festive bell-sounds are the most popular with people. They reflect the nature of Russian people, their ability to enjoy life, to make merry, to make the most of a holiday. Russian bell-ringers put a lot of their talent and inspiration into festive bell-sounds. There is a wide variety of festive bell-music. The solemn tolls of huge bells suggest great power and might. The elaborate tunes and rhythms of bell-sounds can also remind you of folk dancing music or chastushkas, i.e. ditties to a humorous or lyrical theme. The music of bell-sounds calls up the happy and cheerful atmosphere of popular festivals.

The festive bell-sounds of Russia vary: they can be produced by operating all the bells including the biggest one; sometimes the heaviest bell is replaced by the second-biggest; the so-called «red» bell-sounds are produced by small and medium-size bells.

The idea of the first two is obvious. It was important that every holiday, including the most important ones, should be accompanied by appropriate bell-tolling. The chiming of big bells left nobody indifferent. Their power and might filled one with the anticipation of something great and solemn.

«Red» bell-sounds were meant just for the heart and soul. «Red» here means beautiful and colorful (Cf.: «Red Square» in Moscow originally meant «beautiful»). «Red» bell-music is always performed by only one bell-ringer who gives free rein to his creative urge anxious to demonstrate his power over five or seven bells. «Red» bell-music can be heard only in Russia. It was brought to life by the ingenuity of Russian bell-ringers who never stopped perfecting their music. It is full of light and joy, it is the embodiment of Russian optimism and cheerfulness; it calls up a Russian person, optimistic and cheerful.

capable of forgetting all his worries and troubles and having the time of his life.

The chimes of two or three medium-pitch bells, and a bass bell accompanied by the incessant jingling of high-pitch bells created beautiful music rich in shades, tunes and rhythms.

Bell-ringing which goes back to religious rituals is not in discord with the happy atmosphere of a popular festival, on the contrary, the close links of bell-sounds and folk-music intensify the feeling of joy.

This is how N.Olovjanishnikov describes the atmosphere of a popular holiday: «The bell-sounds coming from the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great seem very solemn, especially when all the bells are tolled together, which happens only on special occasions; this bell-ringing has a specific tune and is called «red».

The red-bells ringing on the Easter night follow an old Moscow custom. The first annunciation bell-sounds come from the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in the Kremlin. All the other Moscow churches have to wait for the huge assumption bell to toll which renders this moment especially solemn.

The bell of the Strastnoi Monastery echoes this first stroke, and, finally, as if in a body, all the innumerable Moscow bells begin to chime».

No doubt, the description given above is devoted to festive bell-ringing, and the term «red» used by the author here means «beautiful» or «colorful».

There are many Russian proverbs which go to prove that Moscow was famous for its «red» bell-ringing.

The following reminiscences belong to Sergei Boskin, a priest and a very pious person, who describes the opening ceremony which took place in the Trinity and St.Sergius Monastery in 1946:

«The Trinity Monastery was founded by Sergius of Radonezh in 1337. For 583 years Christian services were performed here daily. But in 1920 the Monastery was closed, and the bells stopped tolling. In the summer of 1927 the giant bells weighing 4025, 1800 and 1200 poods were thrown down from the bell-tower.

…Unfortunately, the head bell-ringer of the Trinity Cathedral who used to supervise the festive bell-ringing performed by 12 bell-ringers did not live to see the Trinity and St.Sergius Monastery reopen. He died of hunger four years before the event.

His name was Sergius (Serezha the Blind). During the winter of 1946 an old man would come to St.Ilya’s Church and ask: «When will you open it? I’ve some ropes ready». He was Konstantin, the pupil of Serezha the Blind. Back in 1927, when Konstantin was still a young man, his teacher, unable to do it himself, sent him to toll the Trinity bells for the last time and to kiss the «Swan-bell» good-bye, which the young bell-ringer did. And now he was anxious to hear the bells toll again.

Together with Father Guri we went to the second floor of the bell-tower which housed the remaining bells. In the middle was the «Swan-bell» (625 poods). It was in very bad repair, its tongue was badly damaged. Three other — jingling — bells had no tongues at all…

At 10 p.m. I returned to the Monastery… The old bell-ringer with ropes in his hands looked impatient, Vladimir Alexeevich, standing next to him, reported: «Everything is ready!»

Permission to resume bell-ringing had come from Moscow in the afternoon.

With great enthusiasm Father Guri blessed Kostya Rodionov, who was to start the annunciation bell-ringing. Naturally, the bell-ringer was nervous: it was he who tolled the bells for the last time before the Monastery was closed in 1920, and he was entrusted to start bell-tolling again. V.A.Loshkaryov, a bell-maker, and Volodya, a watch-maker, went to the bell-tower with him.

Konstantin Rodionov remembers: «We opened the door and shut it behind us. With candles lit we went to the second floor… The tongue of the «Swan bell» has been repaired… I began to fix the ropes to the bells. I could not help remembering the year of 1920 when I tolled the bells for the last time and kissed the «Swan-bell» good-bye, and I could not help kissing it once again. It was 11 p.m. «God, bless me!» — I prayed and began to swing the bell-tongue. The «Swan-bell» began to toll again.

People in the altar were praying. The expectation seemed interminable. But there it came: the first stroke, the second, the third… the familiar sounds of the Trinity bells. People were overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude, tears kept rolling down their cheeks… It was unforgettable…

The solemn bell-ringing resounded in the silence of the spring night. Nobody in the town slept, everybody was listening.

After a 26-year silence the bells of the Trinity and St.Sergius Monastery began to toll on the Easter night: it was like a thunderbolt. People who had gathered near the bell-tower, stood with their candles lit. Those candle lights were so numerous that in the dark night the bell-lower seemed to be radiating light.

Accompanied by solemn bell-tolling Christians went home after the church ceremony, admiring the Designs of God».

At the beginning of the 1970ies U.V.Puchnatchov, a mathematician from Moscow, V.V.Lochanski, a musician from Archangelsk, L.D.Blagoveshchenskaya from Novosibirsk and A.S.Yareshko from Saratov, independent of one another, began to study the art of bell-ringing. In 1989 the Soviet Cultural Fund set up the Association of bell-ringers(). The organization publishes articles devoted to the study of this art; it also tries to find the surviving ancient bells which have cultural value and has new bells cast. Schools training bell-ringers were opened in Archangelsk and Rostov schools of bell-art were organized by the M.P.Musorgski music school in Leningrad and by the L.V.Sobinov conservatoire in Saratov. The Association is establishing links with its counterparts abroad. It spares no pains to restore the glory of bell-music in the functioning churches, to return the bells where they belong, to make up for the damage done.