The Russian Bells: Culture, Cacophony

New Lowell House Society Hopes To Produce Harmony at Last

In 1931 a Boston newspaper reported that the University was «hunting for someone who can lure harmony from 30 tons of metal.» According to eight current members of Lowell House, the search has ended.

The Bellboys last week launched an organization to perpetuate the ringing of the Lowell House Russian bells, located in the cupola 128 steps above F entry.

The newly-formed Lowell House Society of Russian bell-ringers disagrees with the 1931 news account, which called the bells a «white elephants.» Believing in the cultural value of the «zvon,» as a Russian set of bells is properly termed, the group has undertaken to insure its maintenance and improve the quality of performance.

The bell-ringing enthusiasts admit the difficulty of giving a concert which would meet the approval of Cambridge ears. Because the zvon is based on a six-tone Eastern scale, it cannot render the gentle strains of «Fair Harvard» or other melodious selections played by ordinary carillions.

Zvons, however, are not without use in the western world, Edmund M. Parson '58, manager of the new society, insists. When Mercury Recordings produced the 1812 Overture recently, the company employed Yale’s Harkness Tower chimes to simulate Russian bells. The Lowell bell-ringers are writing a letter in protest to a statement by the record’s narrator that Yale’s carillon gave the nearest facimile to Russian bells available in the United States.

There are those, however, who fail to share Parsons’ enthusiasm for the cultural assets of Russian camponology. Vociferous complaints, particularly from residents of Lowell, have issued since the initial playing of the bells in the spring of 1931.

Catcall and Tin Pans

During the zvon’s first years here, undergraduates responded to its music with catcalls, alarm-clocks, saxophones, and tin-pans. The Master at that time became so worried about the House’s reputation that he temporarily forbad zvon-ringing until a suitable player could be found.

In the early thirties the responsibility of coaxing harmony from the zvon was shifted to the Music Department, and more recently to various residents of the House. Howard M. Brown, teaching fellow in Music and resident tutor at Lowell, assumed this Herculean task last year until a nucleus of interested students relieved him. Brown is faculty advisor to the new bell-ringing society.

The first official ringer of the Lowell House bells was as Russian as the zvon itself, which had belonged to the Danailovsky Monastery in Moscow. The bells were donated to the University in 1930 by Charles R. Crane, former United States ambassador to China, who puchased them from the Soviet Union.

Crane bought the bells at the persuasion of Thomas Whittemore, a romantic figure who had been active in the Russian Relief during World War I. Whittemore was interested in rescuing at least one of the characteristic Russian peals from the anti-religious zeal of the Communist regime.

The bells, ranging is weight from 22 pounds to 13 tons, arrived in Cambridge in November of 1930. With them, the Soviets sent their most expert zvon-ringer, Saradjeff, to supervize their installation and to play them.

He was a shy, vague character, who spoke only Russian and a smattering of German and French. Saradjeff’s face had been seriously disfigured during the war, and this injury, or heredity, left him with a tendency to epileptic attacks.

Red vs. White

In an effort to make the visitor feel at home, A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of the University, lodged him with a White Russian who was lecturing in the Law School. This hospitality did not particularly warm the heart of the bell-ringer, who had been warned by the Soviet Government to have nothing to do with White Russians.

Having studied engineering in Germany, the visting bell-ringer wanted to reduce camponology to a science. When shown the zvon, Saradjeff complained that one bell did not belong to the set. He also told President Lowell that there should be 17 additional bells.

The fourth bell--the one Saradjeff considered too close in tone to the third to belong with the others--does not hang in Lowell with the set. Instead it was placed in the Business School tower, where it strikes electrically for the change of classes. Dat- ing from about 1790, it is the oldest of the 18. With winged cherubs’ heads deliciately inscribed around the should, the B-School’s bell is also considered the most handsome.

Not only did Saradjeff complain about the incompleteness of the set, but he tried to improve the harmony by filing niches in the bells’ edges. Bells can be altered in tone by removing some of the metal, but this is usually done by shaving them down on a lathe. President Lowell, found Saradjeff at his filing one day, thought the bell-ringer was spoiling the bells and ordered him to stop.

Saradjeff never finished his assigned task. One day a student discovered the Russian in the Lowell Common Room suffering from a fit, and after several recurrences of these epileptic attacks, the bell-ringer was taken to Stillman Infirmary.

When one morning the sheets on his hospital bed were found covered with ink, the Russian explained that he had been drinking ink as an antidote for poison which he thought was being given him. President Lowell persuaded Saradjeff to return to Russia, where he eventually died in a sanitarium.

Despite the loss of Saradjeff’s guidance, G.L. Myrick, superintendent of the construction of Lowell, consented to hang the bells. Several experts, including Andronoff, a Russian singer from New York who claimed to have bells in Russia some 30 years before, conferred on the zvon’s arrangement and decided to follow Saradjeff’s plan with minor changes.

There are no electrical controls which could be operated from a warm roow below. As the epileptic Russian had insisted, the ringer must stand among his bells and communicate with them directly by chains, regardless of the Cambridge weather or the wind, in the open cupola.

The great 13-ton bell hangs above a large platform. To play it, two men put a rope around a knob at the end of the clapper. Standing under the bell, they swing it crosswise between them. This sets the time for the whole performance.

The other bells hang in the arches on three sides of the tower. Chains attached to them extend to a control platform from which the principal player operates them. He controls the second and third largest bells with a foot lever connected by chains to the clappers. These bells are rung in unison with the big bell, giving a fundamental note which continues throughout the performance. The other bells must be adapted to this basic tone.

By jiggling a small stick in his right hand, the player makes the four smallest bells tinkle continuously. With his left hand he strikes in various orders and rhythms the chains of the remaining ten bells. More often than not, harmony and timing are improvised.

The zvon’s Cambridge premier was Easter Sunday of 1931. When Andronoff came up to practice for his opening concert, students raged, neighbors protested, and it is said that one day he left the tower just before a policeman appeared to stop the din of sextatonic harmony.

Andronoff’s concert itself proved disappointing. The big bell, supposed to be audible for 20 miles as it called the pious to prayer across the Russian steppe, could not really be heard across Cambridge. From close by, however the noise was all too audible, the larger bells almost completely drowning out the smaller ones.

Andronoff was engaged two Sundays a month from 1932 to 1934 to play the bells and instruct two members of the Department of Music in the art. Since that arrangement ceased, the responsibility for ringing the zvon on Sundays, before high table, and on special occasions has alternated between the Music Department and Lowell House residents.

The new Lowell House Society for Russian bell-ringers has announced that it will not ring the zvon other than at the traditional times. Despite fears of residents in Lowell’s E, F, and I entries, the group does not hold practice sessions. A new member--any Lowell House man may join--learns to play the zvon by watching other members and then taking over one of the regular performances. For all, it is still largely a matter of trial and error.

In an effort to develop better quality of bell-ringing, the society is writing to the Soviet embassy to get more information on Russian bells, David S. Cupps '58, secretary-treasurer, says.

There is a possibility that the Lowell bell-ringers may challenge Yale’s Harkness Tower to a chiming contest. The Bellboys, however, will have to compensate for the zvon’s inability to play familiar tunes. Or maybe they will challenge Yale’s carillon to sound like a zvon.All the bells are in the Lowell House tower, except for one, the fourth largest, which is in the Business School tower. This bell was considered out of tune with the others by the Russian expert, Saradjeff.

Source: The Harvard Crimson Online