At The Listeners’ Club, every Christmas we remember Karl Haas, the German-American musicologist and host of the long-running radio program, Adventures in Good Music. One of the program’s most popular episodes, The Story of the Bells, aired for many years on Christmas Eve. It documented the varied sounds of church bells across Europe and the Middle East. As the bells of Zurich faded away in the episode’s opening moments, with infectious enthusiasm Haas declared, “It’s an awesome sound…a sound which leaves no room for human voices.”
Russia has a distinct style of bell ringing, rooted in rhythm, and seemingly influenced by the sounds of the East. Bells are organized according to pitch and timbre—Soprano (Zazvonny), alto (Podzvonny), and bass (Blagovestnik). In contrast with the swung bells of Western Europe, Russian bells are chimed with a clapper. The influence of this style of bell ringing can be heard throughout Russian music, from Rimsky-Korsakov to Mussorgsky. Consider the latter’s grand depiction of bells during the iconic Coronation Scene in the opera, Boris Godunov.
The Russian Orthodox Church considers bells to be “singing icons,” or “scripture in sound” which establish a sacred acoustical atmosphere. The bells fell silent following the 1917 Communist Revolution, and were prohibited by the Soviets.
Now, as we hear in this example from Saint Petersburg, bells ring out again throughout Russia:
Here, we experience Russian bell ringing up close:
We will conclude with the bell tones of a smaller church:
Featured Image: Palace Square in St. Petersburg, photograph by Vladimir Tro