29.02.1992

Those Splendiferous Lowell Bells

MAIL

To the Editors of the Crimson:

We are writing in response to Gayle Turk’s critical editorial concerning «Those @!&# Bells“ (February 22), both to correct her numerous errors and misrepresentations, and in order to present an opposing viewpoint.

To follow in Turk’s footsteps, first,“ a bit of bell history.» The stories surrounding the Lowell bells are a mish-mash of fact and fiction, but every Sunday, visitors to the bell tower will hear a particular version which has been preserved in the archives of the Lowell House Bell-Ringers’ Society.

The tower was redesigned to hold the bells, and President Lowell hired a Russian, Sergiev, to care for them. Sergiev’s duties includes tuning and playing the bells, and he took to the task with fervor. While Turk claims that the bells «could not be tuned,» they in fact could, and this is why Sergiev field notches into the bells: this is the only method of tuning bronze bells.

However, Harvard did not realize this at the time, and there was an uproar when the Russian tuner was discovered filing the bells down. No longer permitted to do this, Sergiev decided that one of the bells, the «bell of hope, felicity and joy» (which was a member of the original set) was too close in pitch to another bell in the set, the «bell of famine pestilence and despair.»

Sergiev suggested that the «bell of hope, felicity and joy „ should be „sent back across the waters.“ He meant to send it to Russia to be tuned; Harvard sent it across the Charles River, where is now hangs at the Business School.

These glorious bells were forged over a 200-year period, and are tuned to the Eastern six-tone scale; they were never intended to comprise a „complete“ set, but rather are parts of what was at one time a continually growing range of pitches available to the Russian monks at Donailov.

Furthermore, Turk’s simplistic dismissal of the bells as „discordant,“ „incomplete and out-of-tune,“ „distorted“ and „intrinsically flawed“ is simply incorrect. The bells have been tuned and are in harmony with the Eastern scale -which places them at odds with our Western eight-tone scale. This is likely the source of Turk’s misconceptions about the sounds of the bells peal forth.

If Turk feels that our 15 minutes of semi-tonal music a week is too «intrusive“ for her tastes, we can only wonder what she would have us do about those musicians in the Square who send forth often poorly executed renditions of Debussy, Ornette Coleman, and even Schoenberg? Should these musicians not be allowed to play?

If there are problems with the bells, it is because of a lack of funding. Recently we have had to jury-rig several of the bells with our own hands on account of the bell-ropes breaking from age. Others should be re-strung, but we are unable to reach them. As a result, four of the highest tones are currently unavailable for use. However, the bells still represent the only set of Russian bells in the Western Hemisphere, and are one of the few sets extant in the world.

Anyone is welcome to play the bells. Turk, before passing such judgments upon these treasures, should take the time to come over to Lowell one Sunday and play them herself. The experience might just change her mind. Chris Ball’ 92 Mark Moody '93 Bill Knox '93–94

Source: The Harvard Crimson Online

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