The phenomenon of Russian church bell ringing /zvon/

Hierodeacon Roman


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The subject of my speech is the phenomenon of Russian church bell ringing, which in Russia is called “zvon”. Believers consider church bells and peals to be a complex phenomenon and today I am going to talk about the most important aspects of bell ringing.

The custom of using objects producing loud sounds as a call to worship originated in ancient times. It was popular for example, in ancient Egyptian culture. Silver horns were used in the Jerusalem Temple of Revelation at public worship. The custom of calling community members to worship by loud sounds was adopted in Christianity as well.

According to church service regulations adopted from Orthodox Byzantium, since the Baptism of Russia (in 10th-11th century), the bell ringing was used to herald beginning, culmination and completion of church devotions.  This signaling was its main function. Once woven into the tapestry church services, the bell ringing was distinctly regulated and performed while reciting special prayers and constituted a part of public worship. Regulations on bell use in Russia have developed within the last 10 centuries, but they, as well as the church service rules, have not changed fundamentally. From the late 15th century the number of the church bells and the bells’ size grew rapidly. Canonical peal type was developed and specified by the regulations. From the end of the 16th century some peal types acquired expressive artistic features. In the 17th century, the golden age of Russian bells, the masterpieces of bell casting and bell ringing art appeared. Numerous super heavy church bells were cast.  At the same time the bells’ ringing manner was changed, because of their large size the clappers were stricken to the bell walls. From the moment of the introduction of this technique the dependency between pace, rhythm and swing amplitude of the jointly playing bells in the mutual peal had gone! Various original Russian triple peals, different in rhythmic and structure, were created.  Later on in the 18th-19th century, in spite of the controversial events taking place in Russian society, the quality of bell casting had improved, bell ringing techniques were made better, and bells hanging methods and bells set management methods were upgraded. At that time, the names of the most talented bell-ringers became known all around. First attempts were made to analyze the music of bell ringing and to notate the most original peals. The beginning of the 20th century is claimed to be the zenith of Russian bell casting. During these years 20 founders would cast 1600–2000 tons of bells in the Russian Empire. This period is known for the numerous talented bell-ringers as well. The triple peal was improved to perfection, as peal technique, structure and composition had become complex and advanced. Thus, bell ringing had gradually evolved from just a signal to an art.

Frequent and numerous bell-ringing in Russian towns did not confuse or worry anyone. The way of life and the culture of Russian people were extremely religious in the old times.

The high white church buildings dominated the skylines of every Russian town and village, because of their characteristic features.  Furthermore all the Russian settlements were built so that churches could be seen from every house window. The church bells were perfect artistic sound dominants depicting the devout life of our ancestors. The bell-ringing was a universal means of mass media as well. The town residents were able to learn news simultaneously and without delay. The bells were announcing arrivals of important guests, informing about festivities, weddings, funerals, alarmed the town of fire, enemy attacks, and disasters, and were also gathering people to town meetings, and tolling time.  One recalled:  “Depending on the bell-ringing in the neighboring towns, we were able to know what the origin and the caliber of the deceased was, what was the type of festivity, to where and from where the Empress was transported and where his devout-obstinate Eminency was headed.”  Thus the different character of bells ringing were informing about the level of importance and peculiarities of church services, they were calling people to church at a set time, they were timing important parts of church service, they were accompanying pacified Christians home from church, were announcing celebrations of different festivities, were informing parishioners not attending church about what occurred there, and were reminding everyone about God and spiritual life.

The church bell is a symbol with many meanings. The bells are associated with trumpets, heralding from Heaven to Earth.  The bells and their sudden loud sound remind believers of angels trumpets, which will suddenly stop the earths history of mankind and call the living and the deceased ones to God. But more than anything else the bell sound is tied together with the voice of God. The voice of God summons people, the voice of God is the voice of our conscience; it is a call to kindness in our hearts, changing our lives for the better. To the extent of their goodliness the Russian people loved to listen to this voice of God. They were recalling God at the first strikes of the toll bell, were crossing themselves and were seeking God’s help with prayer while listening to the bells at the time of work, travel or rest. As one of the interpreters of this custom explained: “If the person, hearing the first strike of the bell finds himself on the deserted road or in the dark woods, he will bare his head, cross himself and get startled in his heart, if he is at home at that time, he will stop working and recite a prayer, if the person finds himself in the boat on the river, he will put down the oars, because the spirit of God is breathing on him both on land and in the water.”

There are many legends describing confirmed and non confirmed stories about how a sudden bell ringing has greatly affected the soul and consciousness of desperate people or sinners, how it has stopped murderers from committing sins or stopped people from committing suicide, and has brought greedy and hard-hearty people to repentance.

However bell casting and bell ringing in Russia is not just part of the Orthodox worship, it is a historic tradition, as well as a way of transferring information and spiritual symbolism. It is a religious art.
When we talk about peal as an art, we should emphasize its most liberal and artistic form – triple peal – sequential strikes into all or many bells. This most difficult but joyful peal serves as an excellent canvas for the creativity of Russian bell ringers.  In a common tempo, under a metronome of the big bell, other bells produce a variety of rhythmical patterns. Each new chord opens a new angle, new accord of various voices. Voices in a trezvon are similar to a chorus and are divided into parts, each having its own function. Big bass bells are less frequent, they determine peal tempo and set its foundation. Middle bells – altos and tenors are applied in a more frequent pattern and lead melody and intonation parts. Small bells perform the most difficult rhythmic patterns – the trill. Trill is a decorative outline of the whole triple peal. Incredible polyphony, resulting from the triple peal, becomes a complete sound impression when presented in repetitive patterns of intonations and passages. Peal image changes dramatically depending on the occasion: funeral, wedding, great holiday, grieving memorial, celebration procession or joyful events are all reflected in the character of a specific peal. Most gifted bell ringers imitated rhythmic fragments of well-known divine service hymns. This made a lasting impression on the listeners. At the same time, the musical form of a peal could be very complex, like a concert, consisting of multiple parts. Talented performers were often uneducated people from lower classes. This is one of the reasons why many masterpieces did not survive to our days — illiterate geniuses were not able to leave written heritage. The art of peal was passed from generation to generation, often crippled. Some researchers find similarity between fast, dynamic, celebration peals and the rhythms of folk dance and song motives. While giving credit to these researches, we need to mention that some fragments of Holy Script could also serve as a prototype for these Russian peals, or at least used as an example. For instance, psalm 117 (118 in western numeration) closely resembles Lavr’s triple peal in its rhythm and dynamics (even in Church-Slavic language). Let’s remember that religious triumph can be reflected in a very truthful and liberal form. Such was the behavior of King David in front of Precept Ark — great King danced to the music while meeting the great Holy Relic. Also, such characteristics can be found in some holiday chanting in Russian Divine Service, the traditional Easter canon for example.
In order to understand Russian bell and peal as a religious and aesthetic event, we should observe it in the context of other types of church art, which target beautification of God’s House, God’s Service, and the implementation of the idea of heaven here on earth. For instance, church architecture, church chanting and icon art.

Let’s look at the Russian church building from the outside.  All its forms are unusual, graceful, streaming to the sky. This is an image of a human soul inflamed by God and reaching for Heaven. This is an image of a heart inflamed by a prayer. Temple was envisioned as Earth Heaven. Architects were creating God’s dwelling on Earth. The depth of Christian symbols in aesthetic forms is expressed here through the language of architecture. Domes, towers, layout and the interior of the temple all have their own symbolic meaning. The body of a temple is viewed as a body of Church, a body of united mankind, with the dome being Jesus Christ.

Now let’s take a look inside this Russian temple – everything here is reflecting the spiritual reality of Heaven. Vertical dimensions, massive columns and elongated figures of saints on icons and frescoes lift the spiritual vision of the believer to the sky. Temple’s arches at the top symbolize Heaven’s arch. They are painted with images of God, The mother of God and the Cherubs. In the dome, above the arches, in the light beaming through narrow windows lives the Creator.

Let us examine the old icons: the faces are in no way a portrait. The icon painter had a wide set of tools and methods available to shade out the earthly and material qualities of the subject, and to cast light on the spiritual. Here there is no treatment of light and shade; there are no shadows at all; there is no attempt at perspective; symbolism trumps realism, the faces reflect spiritual qualities common to this saint or that. One icon may unite several chronologically disparate events into a single image; nonmaterial phenomena have no temporal boundaries.  Icons speak of spiritual things, speak of these phenomena over the entire history of man’s conversation with God. In the faces and figures, in the most subtle of colors and the most elegant of graphics we see reflected both spirituality and human emotion: humility, courage, impartiality, mercy, nobility, prayer/supplication, compassion. In the words of the renowned Russian theologian and thinker, Father Pavel Florenskii, for the eyes of the believer icons “are visible images of covert and supernatural sighs”… the icon’s goal is to lead the mind out into the world of spirit…Icon-painting is the manifestation of celestial images, the stronghold of the living cloud of witnesses around the Throne of God rendered on the wood. Icon painters, the witnesses of these testimonies, give form to their visions. By their very form, icons directly and visually bear witness to the reality of such form, they speak, but in line and color.  This is the name of God written in paint.” This is why icons are also called theology in paint. The images serve as an illustration of man’s dialogue with God. Looking to an icon with our earthly gaze, the eyes of our soul look toward Him who is there depicted, to that First Image. The icon painter, the contemplative, captures the images of godly qualities, internal features, the feats of saints, historical events as described in the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints.

The Russian bell is in itself a singular sort of icon. An icon of the voice of God. This becomes clear when one contemplates the sound of the great Russian bells. The art of casting was well mastered in Russia as early as the 17th century. Therefore it comes as no surprise that at that very time, bells with a variety of voices began to appear. They always have a rich timbre, a generally low tone; they are sonorous; they are tuned neither to major nor minor.  The voice of a bell was thought of as exactly that: not a note, not a chord, but a voice. And that voice had to meet certain characteristics and idea both theological and aesthetic. The ring of a bell must be clear, loud, melodious, harmonious, low, sonorous and resonant. “God is calling the faithful: this call must remind them of God, and the sound of the call must touch their hearts” writes one scholar specializing in the study of heavy Russian bells. The voices of the bells represented what the craftsman understood the thunderous voice of God to be, a sound image, and a sound interpretation of all the qualities of God’s voice in Russian Orthodox belief. In that voice speaking to us we can hear compassion, all-encompassing mercy, and such is the deep, rich timbre of the great Russian bells: there is might, there is nobility, there is constancy in the volume, in the sonority, in the depth. Beauty and wisdom can be heard in the higher ranges, individual shadings of sound, frequency and overtone.  The omnipresence of God is here, and so is the the peal of the bells that can be heard for miles around. And the bells themselves reflect the belief of the master who created them.

Contemplation of the sound of these bells, especially the trezvon, involves a certain musical aesthetic as well. “The sound of the bell evokes a profound response in the realm of the spirit and the soul… the effect is unusually powerful, perhaps made less by beauty itself than by awe at such beauty.”  The coordinated peal of the ensemble and even the ring of an individual bell exert a powerful effect, evoke emotion in the listener, draws vivid spatial associations. “The vibrations set off by the peal of the bells creates, in the spiritual-material world, the same images as are created by sunlight piercing a layer of the atmosphere, by the gleam of the candles and the censer” wrote Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin. The sound of the Russian bell is utterly mystical, filled with multiple layers of meaning and significance, powerful in its effect on the human soul. It both contains and reveals the soul of the master craftsman who cast it long centuries ago, just as an icon does that of the artist’s soul, captures his belief in a reality of a different order. What is phenomenal here is that while the creator of the bell may have left this earth some 200–300 years ago, his creation can convey to the attentive listener both what he believed in and how his contemporaries perceived God and the world of the spirit – just as vividly and truly as it did during his lifetime. The sound of the bells can make that parallel spiritual space tangible, palpable, and visible to whoever has ears to hear.

The true bell-ringer is guided by his love of examining and contemplating these sounding images (liki), vessels of the mentality of his ancestors. Here is the point of contact, of co-creation between the bell-ringer and the master craftsman who cast the bell. Only after the ringer has attuned himself to the sounds, understood them, can he learn to combine the various voices into a single choir, their singular voices alone cannot constitute a melody – they must sing together in chorus. Talented bell-ringers know all the voices, know how to conduct them. Hence the relationship of the Russian bell-ringer to his art becomes clear, as does the evolution of the art itself.

Thus we can conclude that the peal is born in the depths of a people’s collective spirituality and is an aural interpretation of the aesthetic that informs the Russians’ religious world view, a characteristic expression of their understanding of God and the world of the spirit.

If a single Russian bell is an aural image of the voice of God, the pealing of all the bells is an aural image of the church service, of its atmosphere. The bell-ringer’s task is not merely to give a correct or even masterful performance. His most fundamental task is to fully convey a theological understanding of the service, its nature and its sense, to create an inspired peal. As one monk, one of our most talented bell-ringers put it, “when the bell-ringer turns directly to the bell in prayer, his soul rings as well, and each one creates his own signature sound.” The bell-ringer must faithfully reflect God’s call as he is offering up his own prayer, playing out the image of the particular church service and of his own communication with the Lord God. He must present a true Christian interpretation of sorrow when the bell tolls for the dead; he must truly represent the drama of Christ’s last days on this earth in the peals that sound throughout Holy Week, and those that ring out joyfully on Easter morning; he must represent the tempo and movement of a holiday procession, the character of an event in sacred history, the remembrance of a saint. The bell-ringer takes his inspiration from the atmosphere of the service during which or after which he performs the peal; he takes his inspiration from prayer and from communing with God. He then expands this profound inner world, this internal sense of peace, to the wider world, shares it with others, and through the pealing of the bells creates an aural-spatial icon of the mass. This icon, this image includes the austere poetry of Byzantine hymns, the warmth of the morning sun during the Liturgy, the golden glitter and ancient patterns of the vestments seen through the smoke of the censer, the scent of incense, the words of the priest, the sense of freshness and profound spiritual peace, contentment, flashes of exultation. All of these impressions are conveyed and amplified by the measured, deep voices of the bells. When all these “brushstrokes” come together in a single image in the bell-ringer’s soul, the exultant song of his holiday peal will paint his vision in both sound and space; another time the colors and tones might change, as the laconic chiming of medium and smaller bells is heard above the measured and majestic sighs of the great ones to create a remarkable and ancient picture.

These days it is hard to imagine just how powerful an impression was once made on people by the holiday pealing of church bells from belfries across the city. But we can certainly see those colors and feel the power of those impressions in accounts of life in old Russia, in the works of Russian writers and composers. It is obvious that this massive symphony of trezvons was a reflection of the state of quiet, radiant exaltation that reigned in the souls of those leaving or entering the church to commune with their Lord. Even in today’s bustling Russia, the pealing of the bells can evoke a feeling, albeit one immeasurably diluted, of the harmony between the spiritual and the material. In the everyday hustle and bustle of the city, the feeling is diluted or weakened not necessarily because the churches are surrounding by modern high-rise buildings, but rather because the rhythms of life have changed, as have the priorities of the city today.

But aside from the originality of the sound, and the use of the bell as a musical instrument, there is another way in which the bell is unique. The bell, the instrument, is suspended between the sky and the earth. It lives in and between two elements (two worlds) and by its sound, joins them. It is no accident that some sophisticated listeners perceived the sound of the bells as something emanating from the natural world: “the great bells are thunder; the medium bells are the sound of the forest, the smallest of bells — birds singing fortissimo. The elements are speaking!” This inevitably evokes a particular feeling in the bell-ringer just before the peal, and is one of the components of his artistic inspiration. “I always look up, over the earth and into the sky,” said one bell-ringer. As they climb the staircase to the bells, the bell-ringers become a part of the elements and begin to live by their laws. They break away from earth not only in their hearts and souls, but also in body, to find themselves in a realm outside time – that of wind, sun, sky and birds. They see the church and all its symbolism, the graceful and singular forms of the bell towers, the horizon, the far reaches of land illuminated by the sun, and pour out their song of God, of their communion with Him. “The peal comes from on high,” wrote one Muscovite in his diary, “you cannot see from where… it floats above the city like a cloud of sound – white, weightless, free. It is always in the heights and from the heights. It is as “unreachable” as a cloud. It is above and beyond man. It is a free cloud floating in an azure sky, in the sun, high and free and beautiful. What falls from it, though, are not raindrops, not snowflakes, but sounds, simply sounds.”

In his monumental work on Russian bells, Professor Edward Williams has divided their history into six periods spanning the 11th through the 20th century. However, time has not stood still. When President Ronald Reagan visited Danilov Monastery in 1988, he expressed the hope that bells would soon sound again both over the Kremlin and the villages of Russia. His hopes were fulfilled when in 1990, when the USSR officially allowed the pealing of church bells, and a seventh era of Russian bells began, a renaissance of both the art of ringing and the art of casting has begun. Today we are witnessing to one of the culminating events of this period, the event at which we are present – this unique exchange of bells, and the return of the (Danilov)-“Harvard peal” to Russia.
Thank you for your attention.