Russian Bells and the Future of Music

APTOPIX Russia Harvard Bells

The above is an AP photo of a Russian woman reaching out and touching the bells as they arrive in St Petersburg on their way to Moscow.

This week’s issue of The New Yorker had a nicely done article by Elif Batuman entitled The Bells, How Harvard helped preserve a Russian legacy, an article which unfortunately did not make the online cut on their website.

But to give you a little taste, the reporter was guided by a Fr.  Roman, head bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, a “towering figure in his early thirties, well over six feet tall, with enormous hands and a flowing chestnut beard.”  He explains that just as painted icons are not intended to be mimetic representations of a spiritual object but magical windows into the world of the spiritual, so too bells are not musical instruments.  Rather it is:

“‘…an icon of the voice of God.’ A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or minor chord. ‘The voice of a bell is understood as just that,’ he said.  ‘Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.'”

The article traced the history of the bells at Harvard and made mention of an almost mysterious figure, a man who appeared shortly after the bells did.  His name was Konstantin Saradzhev:

“…described as ‘Moscow’s most famous bell ringer,’ to oversee the bells’ installation. Saradzhev spoke no English, and his entire luggage consisted of four pairs of socks and two hankerchiefs. At his request, he was taken immediately to see the bells, which were not as he expected. ‘You have one bell that does not belong in the set,’ he announced. ‘And you should have seventeen other.’  [They were later informed that Saradzhev was mistaken regarding the seventeen missing bells, while the one offending bell was sent across the river to the Harvard Business School. -f.M]

During his time at Harvard, Saradzhev irritated Lowell residents with incessant tapping on the bells. One day, the university’s president…found him scraping the bells with a file, apparently trying to alter their pitch. Lowell told him to stop, and he became upset. Saradzhev, who turned out to be an epileptic, began suffering recurrent seizures. He was eventually sent to the infirmity, where, one morning, his sheets were found covered in dark stains. According to a Lowell House tutor, Saradzhev admitted that he had been drinking ink – an antidote, he said, to poison that was being secretly administered to him. This was the last straw for President Lowell, who sent him back to Moscow.

[The bells were installed with the help of a Russian émigré and the official public concert that Easter was a colossal failure. Later, however, some students became devoted enough to the bells that they started ringing them after football games and the Klappermeisters were formed. – f. M]

As for Konstantin Saradzhev, he was forgotten altogether – until the nineteen-seventies, when Anastasia Tsvetaeva, the sister of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, published a memoir about his life and fate. As it turns out, Saradzhev really was Moscow’s most famous bell ringer, known not just for ringing but also for his superhuman natural acuity: between two adjacent whole tones, he perceived not just one half tone but a half tone flanked on either side by a hundred and twenty-one flats and a hundred and twenty-two sharps.

When Saradzhev was seven years old, the sound of a particularly powerful church bell caused him to lose consciousness, and he was captivated for life. Although he was a skilled pianist, he always referred to the piano as “that well-tempered nitwit”: a piano can produce only twelve tones per octave, whereas Saradzhev perceived one thousand seven hundred and one. This sensitivity perhaps explains Saradzhev’s intense delight in Russian bells, which are unparalleled in their microtonal complexity. Each bell sounds a unique cloud of untempered frequencies, producing intervals unplayable on any twelve-tone keyboard. By such acoustic fingertips, Saradzhev could distinguish all four thousand of Moscow’s church bells. He described his hearing as “true pitch” (by contrast with perfect pitch). The capacity for true pitch, he said, lay dormant in all humans, and would someday be awakened. But in the meantime he was, like a superhero, cruelly isolated by his own powers. He spent more of his time working on a theory of the future of music that was incomprehensible to anyone who couldn’t hear a thousand or more distinct microtunes in an octave.

Still, the “bell symphonies”, which Saradzhev played in place of traditional church peals, were so popular that, even in the dead of winter, crowds filled the courtyard of the Church of St. Maron the Hermit to hear them. It is difficult to guess exactly how the symphonies sounded – Saradzhev struggled all his life with the problem of musical notation – but the effect, according to Tsvetaeva, was explosive: the sky seemed to collapse under the massive weight of thunder; the square filled with the metallic cries of gigantic bronze birds; the trills clattered overhead like swallows. Many listeners characterized Saradzhev’s ringing as “the music of the spheres.”

[Unfortunately, due to church rules he was never able to play his symphonies as he wanted since bells had to be used according to church rules. Professors at the Moscow Conservatory petitioned the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment but the petition was denied. Therefore, to go back in our story, when Harvard hired him to install the bells at Lowell House he thought his dream had come true. – f.M.]

…Finally, some Americans, recognizing the greatness of his bell symphonies, were going to build him a symphonic belfry in America, equipped with thirty-four Russian bells: the seventeen Danilov bells, plus seventeen others of his own choosing. One can imagine Saradzhev’s feelings when he got to Harvard. Nobody was interested in the more than a hundred symphonies he had composed – which were unplayable now, anyway, since the seventeen bells he had painstakingly chosen were nowhere to be seen.

Saradzhev is said to have returned to Moscow one night in 1931, unannounced, bringing his father a raccoon-fur hat with earflaps. America appeared not to have made much of an impression on him. “There’s nothing there but Americans,” he reportedly said, when pressed for details. Little is known of his later years. He is believed to have died in 1942, in a mental asylum in Moscow.”

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