On Bell Ringing in Russia

S.V. Smolensky

I

We, Russians have a very special art, which we almost take for granted. This art is bell ringing. When a bell-tower has a full set of bells, including several big ones, it takes a whole team of bell-ringers to handle them. The resulting ringing is usually very loud and discordant. Melodious and rhythmical chimes get lost in this deafening stream of sounds.

It is a well-known fact that clappers of the biggest bells cannot change their swinging rate for a very obvious reason: they are too heavy and are, therefore, governed by the law of pendulum. That is why simultaneous tolling of 4–5 big bells results in rhythmical discord, and is a real ‘headache’ for an artistically-minded bell-ringer. For this reason artistic bell ringing is limited to small belfries where all the bells are handled by one person.

Yet, full-circle bell ringing has its own special charm. It’s true that sometimes, at a close distance, this deafening force can be hardly bearable. However, words are unable to describe the impression made by the lofty Easter chimes of the Moscow Kremlin churches. At midnight, thousands of people assembled in the very heart of Russia, in its sancta sanctorum, are eagerly waiting for the first peal of the huge bell of ‘Ivan the Great’ Bell Tower.

It’s impossible to feel the majesty of this moment unless you mix with the crowd in the Moscow Kremlin Sobornaya (Cathedral) Square. The whole multitude of people has grown absolutely silent. Silence has come down on the whole of Moscow. Then, suddenly you hear the first soft 'contra-A’ peal coming from ‘Ivan the Great’ Bell Tower. It serves as a signal for all Moscow churches. 5 or 6 seconds later, their bells join in the ringing and their bell-towers are flooded with light. Thousands of people in the square light up their candles. The soft bass booming sound suddenly gives way to solemn ringing. Now the campanili are ringing ‘with all their might’.

This incredibly powerful sound drowns all other sounds – cannon-firing, the singing of the sacred procession and the sighs of the excited crowd. The only sound you can hear is that of the bells. Your eye sweeps across the sea of candle lights with six moving fire streams, which resemble fiery snakes, cutting through this sea… And the whole picture is dominated by the deafening, powerful solemn ringing of bells! … I can’t help remembering an exciting meeting with the unforgettable Ivan Fyodorovich Gorbunov, which happened on one of these occasions.

I recognized him at once — it was him, 'General Dityatin’ who had told us, kids, about 'Fru-Fru’, about the aeronaut-tailor, the sun eclipse and 'La Traviata’. I had already heard that this great and very popular actor allegedly came to Moscow on this occasion almost every year to relish in the stately Russian beauty. This time, he was nervously making signs of cross, with his head slightly tilted to one side and tears streaming down his cheeks… “Just shut up!” – he snapped at some people who had the cheek to exchange a couple of remarks at such an artistic moment. But the sacred processions had already passed by.

The small and sonorous ‘Yasak’ bell at Uspensky Cathedral altar rings the ‘end of service’ and 'Ivan the Great’ bell stops short. The deep lingering sound of the bigger bells immediately fills the cathedral square with its powerful jingly modulations, which have hundreds of side tones and after-sounds. It lasts for one or one-and-a-half minutes. You can hear this powerful and mysterious hymn only once a year in Moscow and only on a quiet and warm Easter night.

The music produced by simultaneous ringing of many bells makes quite a different impression when heard from a distance. Out of town, the bell music becomes very special. It cannot be compared to anything and you can hear it only in the countryside or in the forest. Sensitive people can sharply feel the magic beauty of silence, for example, when they listen to the soft noise of the wind in the pine and spruce tops.

They can hear the forest breath and they can hear the forest talk in this majestic silence. A musician needs but little attention to understand how sharply the unforgettable Glinka felt 'the music of the snowstorm’. One only has to realize the difference between the impressions made by the music in the 4th act interlude in the 'Life for the Tsar’ and by the same music performed before the 'We’re tired, we’re cold’ choir piece; or between the ‘snow-storm’ piece in the same act (Mosso, 3/4) and the same music in the overture…

Bells heard out-of-town, from a distance, sound like a true symphony – they turn into a huge Aeolian harp, which gives us the most ravishing impressions. I was lucky enough to hear such bell symphonies several times – on the bank of the Volga River at a distance of 3–4 versts[1] up the stream from Nizhny Novgorod and on the Vorobyov Hills near Moscow.

I enjoyed the wonderful sad music of bells coming from Novgorod the Great, which sent the drawling sound of its numerous belfries along the Volkhov River to the bank of Ilmen Lake. I also relished in the delightful sounds of the Rostov the Great ‘organ’. This city has an inimitable bell ensemble, which includes specially selected harmonious big bells. When you listen to them on the lake you imagine that you hear the ‘holy heavenly chimes’, whose magic sound can be compared only to the solemn magic of the northern lights.

This sort of music can be heard only in Russia. Our bells, especially the old ones cast in the 16–17th centuries are believed to be the biggest and the most sonorous ones in the whole world. We have lots of bell towers and the vast expanses, which form the perfect environment for such music. At the hour of the vigil, the noise and the bustle subside and the bell music plays in the sky conveying the beauty of the acoustic effects of the highest order. You can hear this music all over the limitless Russian expanses. ‘In the woods’, by a lake or on a riverbank on a quiet evening, everyone can enjoy the symphony of a pine forest transfused by the melodious sound of the bells coming from a remote skete[2].

Words cannot describe the music, which fills the air when the ringing of all the Moscow belfries turns into a quiet anthem heard from the Vorobyov Hills. The view of Moscow basking in the rays of the setting sun gives way to a new picture permeated with the colours of the full moon in June. Now and then we can see the last flashes of light on the windows and gilded crosses. The evening slowly dies and silence befalls on the city and on the countryside.

Soon, we will see a soft green light reflect from the white walls of the far-away houses in the east, and the golden glare of the crosses will change into a silvery glimmer. The music heard amidst this beauty and silence is a very special entrancing music… It merges with the whisper of the forest trees and the sighs of the big city, which seems to be saying its prayers before going to bed or just brooding.

Rostov the Great does not have the same grandeur. Rostov rates almost as a small village even if compared to the charming Yaroslavl, to say nothing of Moscow. However, the town stands on the bank of a big lake and its old cathedral bell gable – zvonnitsa – was built by an exceptionally smart acoustician Metropolitan Iona (Jonah) III Sysoyevich (1652–1690).

This extraordinarily gifted person had an inspiration to build an extended ‘zvonnitsa’ instead of a tall belfry, and arrange the bells in the tuning-fork-based order <…>*. He also composed several music pieces for this unusual instrument, gave instructions for playing crescendo and diminuendo, and indicated modulations, which were to be performed by tolling particular big bells. Up to this date, bells in Rostov are rung faster or slower according to a certain pattern.

That is why in this town, you will never hear a chaotic full peal but only orderly chimes and rings: the old Sysoevsky Chime, Akimovsky Chime, Dashkovsky Chime, Yegorievsky Chime and numerous weekday chimes. Recently, the local bell ringers have composed a new Ionafanovsky (Jonathan’s chime) and, as far as I’ve been told, restored the written music of all existing old and new chimes. Some years ago a 'new Jonah’, Father A.A. Izrailev, a bell acoustician from Rostov, put all town peals in order and improved the acoustics of the newly cast bells at the bell-foundries. As for Father Izrailev’s tuning-forks, they seem to be popular all over Russia.

The Rostov Zvonnitsa is one of the attractions of the exceptionally interesting Rostov Kremlin. It is unique both as a sophisticated antiquity and as a work of art. It has 13 bells, two of which, the Sysoy and the Polyeleiny ones, are huge Tom-bells that weigh 2 thousand poods[3] and 1 thousand poods accordingly. They represent the two ringing tonics, or key-notes – C-dur and e-moll. The change in their clapper-swinging rhythm produces the famous artistic Rostov major and minor chimes, which differ in rate and striking force modulation patterns.

Music patterns rung by the smaller bells bring further diversity into the chimes. However, they are always coordinated with the rhythm of the consonant bigger bell. This alteration of the bell groups results in the alternative domination of the C-dur with its dominant chord, e-moll or a-moll, which appears from the overtones and has its own dominant… The sound interference (i.e. when one bell clash overlaps the other — battements, Stosse) and derived overtones can produce a countless number of new effects.

In this way, we can see that the liveliness of the chimes depends not only on the peculiarities of the individual manner of performance, but also on the character of different rhythmical combinations. Festive Rostov chimes are more dignified and slow, while weekday chimes are by far agile, since they are performed by playing only smaller bells.

To appreciate the distant chimes, one has to move out of Rostov for about a verst along the bank of the lake in quiet weather. The harmonies seem to last forever – one minute dying away, and the next moment strengthening with a new force; the interference of the acoustic waves produces some kind of chime sighs.

You can hear major and minor chords alternatively and it seems as if the air were filled with the sounds of a solemn chorale of unusually soft and long chords. One chord changes the other following an absolutely unpredictable pattern and the overtones make some miraculous combinations, which overwhelm the soul with utter delight. This music is, indeed, ‘unearthly’ and I can’t think of anything similar to Rostov the Great chimes in the whole Russia.

But the best, artistic, chimes can be found in monasteries, especially in small district towns around Moscow. There are also perfect bell-ringers in Povolzhie, where you can hear a lot of original figurations and rhythmical techniques. For the most part they are characteristic of small peals handled by one bell-ringer. Sometimes, two bell-ringers also make enjoyable music.

One of them tolls a big bell with a swinging clapper to give an even-speed ‘basso ostinato’ peal. However, I like small rings far more. In old Russian settlements one can often meet virtuoso bell-ringers, whose talent gives rise to most unusual rhythmical and melodic improvisations. Russian bell-ringers have invented different types of chimes, including fast chimes, call chimes, funeral chimes or knells, weekday chimes, holiday chimes, etc. These are all traditional forms.

However, inspiration helps talented bell-ringers to fill them with new contents, which sometimes can qualify as free creation. I happened to hear virtuosos bell-ringers use accurately measured timing of the parts, developed themes and even something not unlike orchestral effects. In one of the so-called ‘theme developments’ I chanced to hear an unexpected counterpoint theme ‘augmentation’, to say nothing of its partial use. Another bell ringer suddenly introduced a new theme right in the middle of the quick chime by changing the rhythm pattern for the following Andante:

To my utter amazement, the new theme was then appropriately repeated in the major tune and then its original variant was repeated again in the 'refrain’.

We have hundreds of gifted bell–ringers. They all pass the traditional chimes composed by the old Russian masters from generation to generation and enrich them with their own additions. Among them, there are ardent lovers – pure-blooded Russians. I remember a story about a soldier whose skilful bell-ringing stunned Bulgarians speechless.

The chaotic sounds, which the bell-ringer of St. Kral Church evoked from the newly received Russian bells, made him so indignant that he gave an improvised ’bell-concert’ in the Bulgarian capital, quite unexpectedly for himself… However, the ‘historical factor’ weakened the result. Although the impression must have been really strong, it wasn’t strong enough to reveal the essence of the art to Bulgarian bell-ringers.

Up to this date Bulgarians cannot boast of a single good chime. Small wonder, since they acquired bells only a quarter of a century ago, whereas in Russia, bells have been known and used for centuries. Not surprisingly, in Russia, church bell-ringing has become a true people’s art. I would like to draw the attention of professional Russian musicians to this particular sphere of Russian artistic thinking. It embodies and conveys the charms of the Russian nature using peculiar Russian forms.

If music archaeology sets practical aims, if manifestations of people’s artists’ creativity compel us to pay attention to the formal aspect of their inspiration, why don’t we look more closely at the church bell-ringing? For it, undoubtedly, has all the components of the music art, and may as well have quite a few peculiarities, some of which could be quite edifying.

A short while ago, our universally acknowledged incomparable folk songs were scornfully called ‘base’ and our ancient Znamenny (plain) chants were even referred to as 'wolf’s howl’. Then, why don’t we admit that in the way of small forms, lively rhythms and figurations our chimes can reveal something new to the inquisitive-minded Russian musicians?

II

The original form of our bell ringing is the so called ‘bilo’. Usually, a ‘small bilo’, also called ‘maloye derevo’ (a small wooden beam) or semantron is a two-oared wooden board with indentations in the middle cut in order to hold it with the left hand. It is up to 3 arshins[4] long and up to 3 vershoks[5] wide. The oars are quite thick in the middle and gradually become thinner towards the ends. Generally, a bilo looked as shown in the picture below:

When hit with a stick, old dry bilos (made of maple or beech) produce varying sounds depending on the thickness of the place of the impact and the striking force — hence, the musical properties of this instrument. A great bilo, also called ‘velikoye derevo’ (a great wooden beam’) is a huge thick wooden board up to 3 sazhens[6] long hanging on two chains. It is used exclusively for ‘hard striking’. Bilos are quite cheap makeshift instruments, which are still used in numerous poor and remote sketes in the north of Russia.

You can also find them in Russian and Greek monasteries on Mount Athos. Bilos have undoubtedly been in common use since ancient times. In many monasteries, monks use only bilos and have to do without bells. ‘We are poor,’ – told me a Greek monk – ‘we can’t afford the bells; as for a bilo, we can make it ourselves. You, Russians, are rich – you have your ‘golden-domed’ Moscow, even some village churches have golden domes and tall belfries, and every church has bells, sometimes very big bells. It all costs money’.

‘We feel much safer with a bilo,’ – told me an Old Believer monk – 'we strike it only for our own sake. Nobody will hear us off the premises, even in the near forest. It means that our prayer does not get to the district police superintendent or to your local priest – well, so much the better’.

The sound of the wooden bilo is familiar to any musician from the famous episode in «Danse macabre» by Saint Sance. In our sketes, apart from ordinary bilo sounds, the monks have invented a musical form called 'klepanie’. Usually they perform three klepanies with an interval of 3–4 minutes before each service. The sexton or parecclesiarch performs them walking around the church or walking around the monastery yard past the buildings.

Each ‘klepanie’ ends with the indication of its sequential number, which is marked with a corresponding number of separate slow and strong strokes. The melodious part in the middle of the performed piece usually consists of 16-bar periods and represents the big form in all the ‘three klepanie’ pieces complemented with the 4th period performed with the help of the 'great bilo’*. The sound of the great bilo finishes each ‘klepanie’ piece. The small bilo (‘klepanie’) music, excluding the number-indicating strokes, is approximately as follows:

This common pattern varies depending on the manner of individual parecclesiarch. Besides, in the north, the rhythm of the strokes is much slower than in the south. The ‘klepanie’ pieces I happened to hear in a Greek monastery on Mt. Athos were performed in an extremely lively rhythm and were full of most fanciful variations. The old Church Rules give instructions as to the performance of ‘klepanie’ pieces. They are still strictly observed in monasteries famed for their rigorous discipline. I hope the reader won’t be bored by reading a few lines from these thousand-year-old scriptures.

‘Small Vespers Rules. Before sunset, i.e. at the start of 10p.m. on a Saturday night, the candle-lighter, that is the parecclesiarch, shall come to the hegumen-abbot and bow to the Father Superior, that is to the hegumen, to announce by his arrival that the time has come to perform ‘klepanie’. After receiving a blessing, he shall leave and start striking the small bilo. And the rest of the brethren shall gather in the narthex and sing the ninth hour as it is the custom; and then enter the church and take their usual places. The reverend, that is the priest, shall start the evening service by saying: ‘Oh, Bless our Lord’, and we shall start singing the psalm all together in a low and even voice’.

After giving instructions as to the order of the psalms, these Rules end with the following words: ‘And then, we shall have our repast// and shall partake of the food in moderation so as not to get too heavy for the vigil’.

‘Vigil Office and Vigil Rules, that is, Rules of he End-of-Week Great Vespers and Matins’ read as follows: ‘As soon as the sun sets, the candle-lighter shall come to the hegumen-abbot and remind him that the time has come to perform ‘klepanie’ and shall take the latter’s instructions to do so and bow to the Father Superior; or shall come to ecclesiarch should the hegumen be away. This rule shall be followed without exception for it is the basis of the Church Rules, which everybody shall obey.

And in this way, it will help to preserve the Prayer Rules without temptation and ill fame. Following the above, the candle-lighter shall bow to the Father Superior and take his blessing and leave him, and then shall go and slowly strike 12 heavy strokes singing Psalm 118 (119). When he finishes performing the 12 strokes, he shall go and light the candelabra; and then he shall light a candle and place it in the centre of the church right in front of the Holy Doors, and on doing so, he shall strike the great bilo and the iron bar (small klepalo)’.

In the monasteries of Mount Athos the described rituals have been preserved to the smallest detail. The same rituals are strictly observed in the Russian north and in the Russian forest sketes.

All these rituals represent the true hoary antiquity, which is seen as simple-minded and touchingly pious, and which has become closely associated with deep-rooted folk tradition and austerity.

III

No doubt, church peals give much more freedom for a true artist.

In this connection, I can’t help recalling ‘Semyon Semyonych’ — my teacher from the good old days, the kindest of night watchmen and bell-ringers of Pokrovskaya Church in Kazan. He was a very common peasant; and at the same time, he was a great bell-ringer. I don’t think he ever suspected the true measure of his skill and talent. In fact, he just thought that he could ring 'properly’. I remember that when I first climbed up the bell-tower I already knew quite a few things about bell-ringing.

Of course, I wasn’t strong enough to handle the bells, but I had ample theoretical knowledge. I had already built my own belfry in the attic with flower-pots and big earthenware pots and used it to practice the art of bell-ringing. In my own manner, I could already reproduce the ‘welcoming’ and the ‘passing’ bishop’s chimes, which have gone out of use these days. My little brother rode a stick along the garden paths we had agreed upon.

He pretended to be the Kazan bishop, who was either coming to visit us or was just passing by. I greeted the ‘bishop’ with the clatter of my pots, trying to reproduce all the patterns of the ‘welcoming chime’. Today, even the Pokrov bell-ringers hardly ever follow the old ringing rules, but in those old days, Kazan belfries could tell about the local events almost as well as today’s newspapers.

Please, don’t laugh! Listening to the chimes of the churches in the neighbourhood, we, old Kazan residents, could tell the place of a burial service and the deceased person‘s social status; which of the churches celebrated its patron saint’s day and what was its status; where from and where to 'Our Lady of Kazan’ was being transferred; or where from and where to our obdurately-pious ‘Eminence’ was travelling.

The archbishop, who for some reason used to throw ten-kopeck, five-kopeck and two-kopeck coins to the passers-by, demanded that his passage should be accompanied with bell-ringing. It was a long time ago and is now long forgotten, and much water has flown under the bridge since then. Although Kazan was a university town, even in those times, life there was much more placid than today in some God-forsaken Laishevo or the Chuvash Cheboksary.

My enlightenment with regard to bell-ringing dawned on me following some instructions and corrections given by ‘Semyon Semyonych’. It happened by chance. Semyon Semyonovich must have lost his nerve listening to us, boys, tormenting the Pokrov Bell Tower with our attempts at bell-ringing throughout the whole of the Easter week.

I remember that he climbed to the tower saying: 'Stop banging! Listen to me: don’t you see that the ‘big one’s’ clapper moves evenly – although it is tied to the foot board (i.e. to the pedal): watch the clapper and go evenly — miss the first and hit the second or miss the first two and hit the third (i.e. hit the foot pedal every second or third swing); besides, don’t strike the ‘big one’ and the ‘middle one’ with all your might – follow the chime and go now soft and now hard. The bell, my dear, always sings its own song – at this moment, it may sound this way, and the next minute the weather will become hotter or colder, and the sound will change – so we must respect its will. And you are just banging: ta-la-la, ta-la-la – what a mess!

You either overdo or underdo, or put in an odd peal or knock the life out of it, as if sounding a fire alarm… Never mind you’re fooling around during the Easter Week – keep to the rules: there are different rules for weekdays and weekends; for the prayer and for the Liturgy. The deceased also need certain ‘summoning’ tolls and knells for the funerals. The peals for dismissal also have their peculiarities: some are played after the Tsar’s Prayer, others after a rich merchants’ wedding, and still others after a wedding of the nobility.

When you ring on the passing of the bishop or on the passing of the icon-bearing procession you have to make sure people understand the reason for ringing. Otherwise, you will only confuse them — the parishioners will rush to the windows to see what’s going on and won’t understand what it is all about. Also, you can’t ring any short 'perebor’[7] when you want – there’s a special time and place for each of them. If you have started one, let’s say, at the beginning of the welcoming chime, played on the bishop’s arrival, stick to it; in the middle of the piece you can play it with a little difference and at the end, play it from the beginning again. Then I will praise you, because you have kept the pattern’, — and on and on he went.

We had many talks of that kind with the dearest ‘Semyon Semyonovich’.

Actually, those unsophisticated discourses delivered by a most simple bell-ringer presented a completed course of bell-ringing, which comprised different ringing techniques and ringing figurations, different forms of the Russian ‘Rondo’, examples of initial ‘expositions’ and further ‘theme developments’. Naturally, I’m using these terms just because I have no other, more appropriate words.

What I want to say is that the art of Russian bell-ringing also has some refined and accomplished musical forms; that the expositions and theme developments introduced by talented bell-ringers are true works of folk art, which need recording and proper studying from the part of music theoreticians. Virtuosi violinists, pianists, trumpeters and other performing musicians know what it means 'to catch the right mood’ during the performance. In these happiest minutes of the artist’s life he can work real miracles.

The instrument obeys his slightest touch and excites the performer’s soul to such a state that he becomes capable of expressing the highest degree of sincerity. Bell-ringers also have their ‘moments of truth’! It is not surprising, since a bell-tower is a kind of an open-space organ and, at the same time, a perfect hand-played musical instrument. They have absolutely everything to make an artist happy, to set him ‘into the right mood’. The bells are powerful and at the same time very sensitive to the touch. They are self-willed, but they can also sing their hymns obediently.

Besides, I think that a number of ringing techniques like melodious insertions and partial figurations, which Russian bell-ringers use in the middle of the peal session, deserve a most serious attention. In spite of all the diversity of individual techniques, they are united by a certain set of unwritten rules, and form, what we might call, a distinctive ‘school of their own’. When it comes to the music patterns, bell ringing tunes have a lot in common with our ‘plain chants and folk songs, especially with traditional Russian ‘chastushki’[8]. Thus, the bell-ringer of St. Panteleimon Monastery in Mount Athos included the following piece in the middle of the peal:

The introduction of this tune against the background of a continuous flow of repeated musical figures considerably enlivened the performance of the whole 'trezvon’, i.e. treble peal, which consists in a treble repetition of one and the same ring. The opening part had a separate ‘introduction’ (Intrada), and the closing part had a long ‘concluding part’ (Coda). Taken as a whole piece, this treble peal represents a composite form of 'rondo’, which has not yet been universally acknowledged.

I also remember a remarkable episode, when a bell ringer inspired by the elation of a one-hundred-thousand crowd, which had gathered to meet a miracle-working icon, opened his performance with a very unusual introduction. It was a look-alike of the beginning of Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony (E-dur). The bell-ringer missed 8 beats of the big bell and gave 2 strong chords; then he played the ‘theme’ on the medium-sized bells and answered it with a skilfully syncopated counterpoint performed on the small bells.

The unusual opening was followed by one of the most wonderful big peals I have ever heard, which testified to the bell-ringer’s enormous talent and brilliant execution technique. It is really hard to say how he had conceived such an inspiring opening. His performance was a bit nervous, however, all parts were clearly shaped and complete. Needless to say, that the bell-ringer had no idea that by ringing small tunes on the ‘little ones’ and playing certain repeated figures on the ‘middle-sized’ he proved to be a true, if untraditional counterpointist.

Being a simple-hearted person, this artless son of Russia could not realize the reticent beauty of his inspiration, which manifested itself when he rang his cheerful and savoury pickups and syncopes, when he suddenly broke off on the omitted strong parts of the bars, or when he inserted skilful repetitions. His ringing was a real triumph of sound and soul — a true Allegro con brio. The concluding part was no less original. I couldn’t help recording it on the spot. It showed an obvious connection with the opening piece. This is how it sounded:

Such rare peals demand talent and technique, however even less sophisticated chimes convey most deep and touching emotions. Thus, chain-ringing performed when the deceased is carried out of the church fully corresponds to the occasion and can move listeners to tears. Here is a short part taken from a funeral knell:

The first part of the knell, which consists of the repeated performance of this tune, is followed by the second part, which comprises the ringing of all bells. But in a knell, you will not hear the merry ringing of small bells, which pleases the ear in other chimes. Even the jumbled chords of the first part, which can be often heard with dissonant bells, do not grate upon the listener’s ears, since he is enchanted with the original rhythmic contrasts of the funeral peal.

The connoisseurs measure the bell-ringer’s artistic merit by diminuendo, which is hard to perform on larger bells, — they appreciate the gradual increase of the intervals during chain ringing and the force, with which he performs the culminating ringing of all bells. The second part of this peal, which follows after the Largo, also presents interest for the connoisseurs.

In the so-called ‘lead’ part, an experienced bell-ringer is expected to sustain a very moderate tempo and repeatedly perform the themes of the ‘funeral service’ chain peal. When performed by skilful bell-ringers, this peal can make a very strong impression on the listeners. Well-timed pauses and loud chords of the first half wring their hearts with the tragedy of the situation.

In the second half of the second part, the wounds of the soul are healed with an unusually suitable ‘soft’ soothing peal. While the deceased is carried out, and the funeral procession moves away from the church and from the ringing bells, grief gives way to resignation under the influence of their long conciliatory diminuendo…

And of course, there is nothing like a wedding peal! It is full of joy and piquant humour. Its Allegro molto usually has a very long introduction. The peal begins with a long ringing of smaller bells joined in succession by other bells at equal 2-beat intervals until they all merge into a powerful crescendo, which ends by a loud stroke of the ‘biggest’ bell. It is followed by a long pause and then the bells resume ringing and pass to the second part of the wedding peal. What invigorating and stately music! Usually, this peal ends with a cheerful concluding part, which sounds approximately as follows:

If we now supplement the above examples with Lenten peals, the chain ringing calling Christians to take part in the icon-bearing procession, special festive peals for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Day, for the ’Twelve Gospels’, etc., we must admit that the Russian bell-ringing tradition has long-established special forms of bell ringing. 'Small’ forms do not allow any variations. On the contrary, in the ‘big’ forms, an artistically-minded bell-ringer is given a free hand. Consequently, these peals, such as the wedding peal, the welcoming peal, the treble peal and the funeral peal (particularly its second part) should be referred to as ‘free art’.

I have already mentioned some composite parts of the peals, which more or less correspond to the usual musical exposition. I would like to add another remark: I am inclined to believe that in all types of Russian folk music, sentence rhyming is characterized by varying beginnings and matching rhymes at the end, rather than by matching beginnings and different endings.

Thus, in Znamenny (plain) canticles, this type of rhyming clearly denotes the musical form, notwithstanding the numerous complexities of their sophisticated free patterns. The same consistency can be observed in the rhyming of many Russian folk songs, especially of the monotonous ones, architectural structures, ornamental patterns and even in the folk dances (I hope I have not shocked the reader with this parallel) like ‘Trepak’, ‘Kazachok’, ‘Gopak’, etc.

An experienced performer will concentrate on a spectacular 'opening’, in other words, he/she will try to emphasise the different opening of the performed variation as compared to the preceding one and at the same time show its consistency, appropriateness and connection with the preceding variations with a diversity of the theme development techniques. The ‘end’ of each variation keeps within an established uniform pattern.

In fact, this simple ‘end’ marks the specific pattern of the whole dance. The same method is used by experienced and gifted bell-ringers, who handle big peals. They play numerous variations on smaller bells, making a point of rhyming the end of each variation and showing their inventiveness in the opening parts. It‘s the opening of a long peal that allows a bell-ringer to demonstrate his art and creativity.

He may further display his individual talent in the simple exposition of the first part and in its more elaborate and free development in the second part. In most cases, peal ‘introductions’ and ‘conclusions’ have established patterns. However, they also leave room for free expression. In general, bell ringing is a science in itself. It is also an indisputable and a very sincere art – a truly people’s art practiced and preserved by common people.

I am sure that musicians, who will endeavour to study Russian bell ringing, will never think it a waste of time and will not even for a moment regret their decision. Bell ringing forms a part of our artistic heritage. It is as mysterious and unexplored as our folk songs and especially ancient plain chants. Although our musicians are very enthusiastic about using traditional Russian forms, these sources of national wisdom, wit and feeling still remain an unsolved enigma, for instance with regard to their freedom of artistic expression.

It’s my firm belief that our 'music of the future’ will draw its power from its ancient native sources, from the discoveries made during its long way of development and from its ideals, which were formulated by humble singers, sextons and bell-ringers in the old times. The simple beauty of this art is easy to feel, hard to understand and even harder to explain.

However, we have undoubtedly reached the understanding that the educational value of folk art is simply indispensable. Without disowning the treasures of the world music, we must remain Russians. I’m absolutely sure that once we try to regain our national identity, we will never regret this step. On the contrary, we may be surprised by our own power and our inexhaustible wealth of heritage, which will help us to discover new ways to Russia’s glorious future.



[1] verst — old Russian measure of distance equal to 3500 feet or 1.6 km
[2] skete (Rus.) – a small secluded monastery; an isolated hermit community
[3] pood – old Russian measure of weight equal to 16.8kg
[4] arshin – old Russian measure of length; 1 arshin = 0.71m
[5] vershok – old Russian measure of length; 1 vershok = 4.4cm
[6] sazhen – old Russian measure of length; 1 sazhen = 2.34m
[7] perebor – reverse chain ringing. A slow striking of each bell only once, starting with the smallest bell to the largest after which all the bells are rung together once. This is repeated many times.
[8] chastushki — humorous rhymes (often improvised and sung in a string of others as a folklore tradition)