Resonant Renaissance: Moscow Easter Festival Celebrates Russia's Reborn Tradition of Bell-Ringing
Thursday, April 15, 2004
The Moscow Times (via AP) - 9-15 April 2004
A vibrant, rhythmic sound will reverberate over the usual din of urban life this week, as Moscow's churches and monasteries ring their bells for the annual Easter Week celebration. Despite decades of silence under the Soviet government, Russia's bells ó and the traditions that surround them ó are still going strong.
"Slowly but surely, the old ways are returning," said Viktor Sharikov, head of the Bell Center, a school for bell ringers located in the Cathedral of Saint Sofia of God's Wisdom, one of the oldest churches in Moscow. "We see more and more churches putting up bells, more and more people who want to become bell ringers."
From Sunday to April 24, the Moscow Easter Festival will feature a series of concerts by the orchestra of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, led by prominent conductor Valery Gergiev, a collection of choral performances in local churches, and a host of chamber recitals and operas with world-famous soloists. Most audible to the passing public, however, will be Bell Week, when master bell ringers from all across Russia gather in Moscow to chime from the belfries of city churches.
Unlike free-swinging Western bells that are rung by pulling a cord attached to the bell itself, the bells in the Russian system are stationary and sounded by means of a cord attached to the clapper. By fastening cords to both hands and elbows, the ringer can even work several bells at once, producing a distinctive fusion of rhythms completely unlike that of Western bells. Many Russian bell ringers also heavily rely on bilos, or hanging flat panels traditionally made of wood or bronze that are struck like gongs.
"In Western churches, a bell is played melodically, like a piano," Sharikov said. "Here, we concentrate more on creating a rhythmic picture."
Although Russian bell ringing sticks to specially prescribed Orthodox rites, with different rings for specific rituals, bell ringers claim that there is still plenty of room for improvisation.
"I can honestly say that I've never played the same thing twice," said Sharikov. "A lot depends on the holiday, on your mood, even on the weather."
But the art of bell ringing has outlasted a lot of bad weather over the years, stretching back to the medieval period, when Russia was broken up into several warring princedoms. The first mention of bells dates back to 1066, when the First Novgorod Chronicle records an enemy prince seizing the town of Novgorod and claiming its bells as spoils of war. Although bell-making was considerably slowed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, it later revived and began to flourish. By the 17th century, each one of Moscow's thousands of churches was reported to have as many as 10 bells.
While today they are primarily used for marking holidays and calling the faithful to worship, bells played a far greater role in the medieval period and later, when they were the sole means of instantly announcing news across vast open spaces. Besides ringing out on church days, weddings and funerals, bells also called town meetings to order, sounded alarms and guided travelers to safety during blizzards.
Bells were such a common part of life that, frequently, they were ascribed human qualities. Some bells were said to have a certain "personality" that was reflected in their timbre; others, such as the famous Tsar Kolokol, a massive 202-ton bell from the 1730s that chipped in post-production and today stands on a pedestal in the Kremlin, were named.
The president of the Campanological Arts Association of Russia, Alexander Yareshko, has said that Russian rulers even disciplined bells that misbehaved. Legend has it that when Ivan the Terrible re-conquered the rebellious city of Pskov in 1570, he ordered the town's bell to be exiled to Belozersk after being thrown from its belfry and getting its clapper torn out ó punishment for ringing an alarm against his approaching army.
According to Sharikov, bell ringing came to a virtual halt after the Revolution, when the Soviet government enforced a policy of state atheism and closed down churches. Many bells were sold abroad, while others, on Josef Stalin's direct orders, were melted down and recast for industrial and military use (a practice actually inaugurated by a previous secularizer, Peter the Great).
But today, bell ringing is enjoying a major revival. According to Sharikov, the Bell Center, which takes groups of 25 students several times a year for its three-month course on the fundamentals of bell ringing, boasts over 500 alumni since its opening in 1995.
"All kinds of people come to learn," Sharikov said. "We get men and women, college students and businesspeople. Recently we graduated an entire class of pensioners."
While the majority of bell ringers stick to time honored traditions, others put a modern spin on the ancient art.
"I like to call myself a zvonar-kolokolist (bell ringer-bell player)," said Alexei Petrovsky, an Arkhangelsk bell-ringer who plays with classical and jazz ensembles when not sounding bells at church. "The art is no less spiritual when taken outside of the bell tower and accompanied by beautiful music," he said.
But even though Sharikov admits that bell ringing has come a long way, not all of its newer applications win approval with the church.
"I was recently asked to play at a beer festival," Sharikov recalled. "Of course, I refused."