Arts & Culture

The Russian bells: A multifaceted love story

5 min read

Symposium looks at curious, circuitous history of the Lowell House bells

The saga of the Lowell House bells, scheduled to return to Russia this summer after 78 years at Harvard, was the subject of a festival and symposium Sunday and Monday (June 1-2) at Lowell House and the Barker Center.

The history of the bells is a multifaceted love story of an unusual sort, and a story of homecoming, too.

The bells were a gift to Harvard in 1930 by Charles Crane, a Chicago industrialist-cum-diplomat who made his fortune in the manufacture of sanitary plumbing fixtures. He rescued the bells — a set of 17 plus one that didn’t match — from the Danilov Monastery in Moscow at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church was under relentless attack.

The Stalinist government of the Soviet Union had decided, as Lowell House Master Diana L. Eck explained it, that “the bells in Russia should be replaced with the sound of factory whistles.”

But Crane had fallen in love with the mysterious and compelling sounds of Russian church bells when he first heard them on entering the Russian city of Rostov. When he found out that the Danilov bells were available for purchase, he bought them — 33.8 tons of bronze — for the price of their value as metal and bestowed them as a gift to Harvard.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard at the time, was known to have an interest in bells. He was rumored to be interested in a carillon that would be able to play “Fair Harvard.”

That was exactly what the Danilov bells were not suited to do. As Luis Campos (A.B. ’99 and Ph.D. ’06), a former Lowell House bell ringer, explained at the symposium, “There were no ‘selections’ to be played.”

A Western-style carillon is in effect a musical instrument: a set of bells that function together as a single instrument, as a set of strings makes up a harp. A carillon can play tunes. In the very rich, but very different, Russian Orthodox tradition, the bells are chimes. They work their magic not with melody but with complicated rhythms. They are tuned differently from Western bells. And they fulfill specific roles in the spiritual life of the community.

Heralding the results of football games, however, was not one of these.

And so the bells’ debut on Sunday, April 5, 1931, drew headlines such as “Tons of Chimes at Harvard and Not a Note of Music,” as Campos recalled. But, as he also recounted, there was at the beginning another view of the kind of music the bells should produce, and it was neither “Fair Harvard” nor traditional Russian Orthodox chiming.

In Russia, Thomas Whittemore, an archaeologist and historian (Harvard Graduate School ’98) who worked with Crane, engaged Konstantin Saradjev as a sort of curator of the Danilov bells. Saradjev was an unworldly figure who could have been invented by Dostoevsky. The lack of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that made getting Saradjev a visa problematic was only the beginning of the challenges of getting him to Cambridge. As Campos related, he arrived with four pairs of socks, two handkerchiefs, and no knowledge of English.

But, as Hugh Olmsted explained in his presentation, Saradjev was a remarkable talent. He had such a keen sense of pitch that he could distinguish among 243 fractional pitches between two whole tones on the musical scale, where most people hear only a single semitone. His vision was to use the Danilov bells for his own musical compositions, or “harmonizations,” as he called them. And he was willing to file the bells down himself to retune them as needed.

But, alas, by December 1930, it was clear — to Harvard officials at least — that Saradjev needed to be repatriated for reasons of his own mental and physical health. The installation of the bells awaited the arrival of another Russian expert, this one from New York.

When the bells were finally installed, the students of Lowell House were not happy. As Campos related, the ringing of the bells interfered with the students’ sleep and study. Their protests included banging pots and pans, simultaneous flushing of all the toilets in the house (take that, Mr. Crane!) and the heaving of alarm clocks out of windows.

The official correspondence about the bells peters out after the late 1930s, but over the decades, the bells worked their way into the hearts and minds — and ears — of Lowell House and the Harvard community.

And so by the time the question of repatriating the bells arose in earnest in the 1980s, as the millennium of Russian Orthodox Christianity approached, Harvard wasn’t so sure it wanted to give the bells back.

At one point the Danilov Monastery offered an exchange of bells — a new replacement set for the originals. Part of the story is the revival of the art and craft of bell casting in postcommunist Russia.

A turning point, as Eck, who is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, related, came when it was decided, “The University has every right to keep the bells, and every right to give them away.”

A delegation came from Russia in December 2003 — this week’s symposium featured a glimpse of the group gathered at the statue of John Harvard. At that point, Lawrence Summers, then president of the University, signaled willingness “to explore what would be involved” in returning the bells.

At this week’s symposium, Eck recalled hearing the Lowell bells played by the visiting Russians for the first time and feeling, “These are their bells.”

It was a long negotiation, but eventually a deal was struck. The repatriation is being financed by the Russian philanthropist Viktor Vekselberg through his Link of Times Foundation. The bells will be removed from the Lowell House bell tower next month and are to be installed in the rebuilt Danilov Monastery in Moscow by September.