Toll, don’t peal, the bells

RussianBellsThe Washington Post Foreign Service has an interesting story today about the revival of church bells and bilos in the Russian Orthodox church. The other day we looked at the New York Times foreign desk’s treatment of the rise of piety in Islamic Egypt. That story used the prevalence of a mark of piety to explore larger cultural trends but also focused on the religious meaning.

The church bell story by Peter Finn was more straightforward observation than analysis. Reporting from Moscow, he explained how students are taught to perform rhythmically perfect ringing:

[Margarita] Krupka, a 25-year-old psychologist, stood before a head-high wooden frame from which nine bells and a bilo, a piece of flat metal, were hung. She held short ropes connected to the bell tongues and began to pull. First came one lonely bell, and then, as she deftly worked the ropes and a foot pedal, others joined to achieve a peak of controlled percussive sound.

Eyes shut, she gently rocked with the chimes. And as quietly as she had begun, she eased out of the short movement.

“I have a feeling my soul is singing,” said Krupka, who lives in a small town near Moscow.

And indeed Krupka’s chimes are not just a call to service but a binding link between the church and Heaven, according to Orthodox belief.

That last line — along with the headline claiming bell ringing was sacramental — weren’t explained in any way. There must be a theology about the chimes but it wasn’t explained in the piece. Instead the article focuses on how 800 students a year graduate from three month courses on the theory and practice of bell-ringing. The rhythmic tones have been missing from services because of a severe shortage of skilled ringers:

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of Orthodox churches have been built or refurbished, but only a small percentage have ringers, according to Viktor Sharikov, head of the Moscow Bell Center, which turns out about 800 graduates a year.

During communist times, he said, “we lost many things, and our task is to revive our traditions.”

Students such as Krupka must be Orthodox faithful and regular churchgoers, and they are selected by their local clergy to attend class. The three-month course involves two hours of theory and three hours of practice each week.

Bells were run during the Soviet period but only at famous monasteries. The most interesting part of the story was the comparison between Western and Eastern bells. In the West, chimes follow musical notes while for the Orthodox bell-ringing is purely rhythmic, according to the story:

Western bells swing as they ring; Orthodox bells remain stationary and their tongues, connected by short ropes to the hands of the ringer, do all the work. Unlike in the West, where a bell-ringer often stands at the bottom of a long rope that reaches into a belfry, a Russian bell-ringer usually stands right in front of the bells.

“For us the most important thing is the sense of rhythm,” Sharikov said. “If your ear is tuned, great, but it is not the most important thing. Our bell-ringer is not ringing music. He is ringing a rhythm, and sometimes it’s very difficult to catch any melody in it. This is our tradition.

“For Catholics, for instance, how well the bell corresponds with a note is very important,” he continued. “But what is most valuable for us is how rich the timbre is and how long the sound lasts.”

Again, I’m intrigued but left with many questions. Why are notes important to Catholics but not Orthodox? What is the symbolism of the Orthodox chimes?

This article, found on the site of an Orthodox bell seller, explains some of the theology and history behind the bells. That site also claims that when America’s first Russian Orthodox bishop — St. Innocent Veniaminov — came to Alaska, he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a subdeacon, a reader and a bell ringer.

I’ve long complained that political angles get more coverage by religion reporters than sacramental angles. Here we have a great story idea about the life of the church but it’s not explained enough.

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  • Mattk

    I agree with you, Mollie. There could have been a lot more written about both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox understanding of the bells. I had no idea that the actual note was important to Roman Catholics. I’d like to know more about that. Such as, which musical scale they use?

    Here is a page from my parish (the first Orthodox Parish established in the U.S.) that talks quite a bit about our bells.

  • C. Wingate

    Especially the false contrast. Somehow in these stories it’s very important to draw a distinction between Eastern and Western practice, when a visit to YouTube will show you that there are many different western practices (and probably damage your speakers in the process). You can see change ringing, carillons of different styles, huge bourdons in Germany being swung, and some crazy place (I forget where) where they push the bells by the lip and the yoke– by hand. Only in carillons is the melody important, and ironically those are the only ones run similar to the Russian manner.

  • Julia

    Just got around to this the day after Christmas so I’m probably typing to myself.

    “For Catholics, for instance, how well the bell corresponds with a note is very important,” he continued

    The reporter is quoting somebody named Sharikov, the head of the Moscow Bell Center, for the bit about Catholic bells. In another place he calls Catholic bells chimes.
    After 63 yrs as a Catholic and visiting Catholic churches all over the world, the only time I heard bells doing music was when the church had automated fake chimes. This seemed to be imitating the Protestant culture because I don’t believe that is a Catholic tradition at all.

    In Catholic tradition, bells are a call to Mass, sometimes a notice that the elevation is taking place at Mass, a mark of joy at the Holy Saturday Mass and at Christmas midnight Mass, a notice it is time to pray the Angelus, anotice that a Requiem Mass is over and the deaceased is about to be buried, and to celebrate a wedding or a joyful community event. They are like the town crier.Chimes are an innovation and usually electronic – no fancy bell techniques needed.

    The quintessential Catholic bells are heard in Puccini’s Tosca calling Romans to pray the Angelus at break of day. Puccini like a lot of composers used bells with particular pitches for their effect within the score. I don’t think real church bells are cast with particular pitches in mind – maybe medium high and low, but those are also in Russia, judging from the audio bite. Perhaps Mr Sharikov is confusing the Tosca belles with real bells

    Eleven were cast especially for the opera. I’ve read that Puccini spent a lot of time listening to the real curch
    bells that would be heard from Castel Sant’angelo and tried to duplicate how they sounded. I stayed at a hotel about 2 blocks from the Castel and from the hotel roof you can see
    at least 11 churches. I think the eleven bells were each
    to represent a different church in that part of Rome; not
    eleven bells at one church that were playing a thought-out melody. That was Puccini’s doing; he worked the sounds into something. I understand he had a priest go around with a tuning fork and try to assess the pitches of the various bells. St Peter’s turns out to be a perfect “E”.
    Maybe the Russian guy got his ideas about Catholic bells from stories he heard about Puccini’s bells in Tosca, not knowing that it was Puccini’s artistry and not reality.

    On the side – the bells in the Far East are also stationary and have no clappers. A log on ropes is struck against the ouside of the bell if it is large; it is struck with a woodenhammer on the outside if the bell is small.

    Here’s the section of Tosca with bells. I’m sure it’s not as good as what Puccini actually produced with real bells cast specially for the opera. The one really gorgeous one represents the one at St Peter’s which is rung when a new pope is elected and you may have heard it in the newscasts about Benedict’s election. A better version is probably the 1992 Tosca filmed on location in Rome at the times called for in the opera. The real bells of Rome are heard in the film, I believe.