I read a very interesting essay in the recent New Yorker about the repatriation of the Danilov bells from Harvard’s Lowell House belfry to the Russian monastary where they hung and rang for centuries. Russian bells have been on my mind since December when I watched Andrei Rublev, the 1966 masterwork of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. That film has an amazing scene where a young bell-maker is asked to cast a gigantic bell — something he has apprenticed with his late-father, but never done himself. As a depiction of art and craftsmanship, I think it is unequalled.
The New Yorker piece talks about the role of bells in Russian life, the destruction of most of the country’s bells by Stalin, and the preservation of the Danilov bells (a set of 17) by the wealthy benefactor, Charles Crane — the toilet and sink magnate — who was a protean renaissance man with a desire to preserve an amazing collection of bells ranging from 22 pounds to the 26,000 pound “Mother Bell”.
From the Wikipedia entry on Lowell House:
For three-quarters of a century, one of the more distinctive features of Lowell House was the presence of a set of Russian bells in a tower above the House, one of only a handful of complete sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells left in the world. The set was bought around 1930 by Chicago industrialist Charles R. Crane in order to save the bells from being melted down by Soviet authorities. Crane is reputed to have bought the bells for the price of their bronze content. When Lowell House was built, Crane donated the set of 18 bells to Harvard (only 17 are in the House today; the 18th was thought to be too close in tone to one of the others, and it now hangs in the tower of Harvard Business School‘s Baker Library).
The bells originally came from the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, now the seat of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and were installed with the help first of Konstantin Konstantinovich Saradzhev and then that of “a Russian émigré who … claimed to have rung the Danilov bells before the Revolution.” They range in weight from 22 pounds (10 kg) to 26,700 pounds (12,100 kg) (the largest bell is known as “Mother Earth”). The bells are consecrated, and are of great significance to the Russian Orthodox Church, where bells are regularly rung as part of the liturgy. At Harvard, the bells are rung every Sunday from 1:00 to 1:15 pm, and on certain special occasions, by an interested group of Lowell residents known as the Klappermeisters. The Bells had been rung for generations of students, for instance, following the Harvard-Yale football game, with Harvard’s score rung on the “Mother Earth Bell” and Yale’s rung on the “Bell of Pestilence, Famine, and Despair.” Visitors are welcome. They can also be heard on the Lowell House Virtual Bell Tower.
With the revival of Christianity in Russia and the reopening of the Danilov Monastery, a request had been made for the return of the bells to Moscow. After prolonged negotiations, they were returned in the summer of 2008 and replaced with replicas; the exchange was made possible by the financial and administrative support of the Russian industrialist Victor Vekselberg.
Here is the bell casting clip from Andrei Rublev. The full scene needs to be seen for full impact.