Q&A

The Lowell House-Danilovsky Bells

The first set of 17 bells hung in the Lowell House bell tower came from the Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow, named for Prince and Saint Daniel (1261-1303). Most of the bells are part of a 19th century zvon, though the oldest is thought to date back to the late 17th century. In all, the bells weighed approximately 25 tons. In 2008, the bells were returned to the Danilovsky Monastery, and a new set of Russian bells were installed in their place.

What is the significance of the Russian Bells?

Bell foundries flourished over the course of many centuries in Russia and the ringing of bells marked public occasions, sacred festivals, and daily liturgies. The bells themselves have religious significance and are often embossed with icons, as are the largest bells in the set at Lowell House. Bells first began to be made in Russia in the 16th century, and rapidly came to play a large part in Russian culture. The casting and presentation of bells had both religious and civic significance, and became a widespread practice. Russians of all classes were known to throw valuables such as jewels or gold and silver plates into molten metal as bells were cast. Some accounts indicate that by 1700 Moscow was home to more than 5000 bells, and that it was impossible to speak in the streets on holidays when they were all were being rung at once. The ringing of bells was silenced in the revolutionary period following 1917.

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Where is the Danilovsky Monastery?

The Monastery of St. Daniel was the first monastery in Moscow. It was founded by Prince Daniel of Moscow who later became Prince of all Russia. Just before his death on March 17, 1303, he became a monk. During its 700-year history, the Danilovsky Monastery has experienced periods of flourishing, neglect, and revival. As Stalin consolidated power in the late 1920s, many churches and monasteries were closed and destroyed. Their bells were typically removed and melted down for the metal. The Danilovsky Monastery was one of the last to be closed; that was in 1930. Many of the monks and priests were killed. The monastery was not destroyed, but turned into an orphanage or prison for children of dissidents.

In 1983, the Danilovsky Monastery site was returned to the Russian Orthodox church. According to a Moscow newspaper report of 1987, "The Soviet authorities, in an unusual gesture toward the Russian Orthodox Church, have given a similar set of bells of the same period from several of the closed monasteries" to the Danilovsky monks. These were first rung on May 9, 1985. The monastery fully re-opened in 1988, the year of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. It is now the center and headquarters of Russian Orthodoxy and the residence of His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Alexei II.

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How did the Bells get to Harvard?

The bells of Danilovsky were one of a very few sets of bells that survived the Stalinist era. In 1930, Harvard University received 18 bells that originally had hung in the Danilovsky Monastery as the gift of Charles R. Crane, an American diplomat, philanthropist, and businessman. The bells were purchased through his agent, Thomas Whittemore, professor of Byzantine history at Tufts University.

The potential gift became known to President Lowell in 1929. As early as January 1930, the tower of Lowell House, then under construction as a clock tower, was re-designed to receive the bells. In the fall of 1930, the bells arrived in Cambridge. An elaborate system of scaffolding and winches moved them into place in the tower by hand power. According to an early account, a joke of the time had it that there was a Crane big enough to buy the bells, but not one big enough to lift them.

The foremost Russian expert, Constantin Saradjeff, was sent to tune the bells and supervise their hanging in a traditional arrangement. According to Mason Hammond, the first Senior Tutor of Lowell House, "Mr. Whittemore claimed that Saradjeff had so accurate an ear for tone that he could identify by ear the sound of any one of the 4,000 bells in Moscow." Mason Hammond’s colorful account of Saradjeff’s time at Harvard and other details about the early days of the bells in Lowell House can be found here on the Lowell House website.

The installation of the seventeen bells cost a total of $17,000. An eighteenth bell, deemed to be too close in tone to one of the larger bells, now hangs in the bell tower of Baker Library at the Harvard Business School. The first formal "concert" on the Bells –in accordance with Crane’s wishes that they be played "in the original Russian manner" --took place at Easter in 1931.

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What do the Bells look like?

The bells range in weight from nearly 14 tons, to about 22 pounds. The largest bell, called the Mother Earth Bell, has a clapper that alone weighs about 800 pounds. The larger bells are adorned with the Old Church Slavonic inscriptions from the original bells. The sides and shoulders of the bells bear icons of Christ, saints, and Mary, along with winged angels, medallions, and scrolls of floral decoration. The smaller bells are unadorned.

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How are the Bells rung?

The bells all hang in stationary mounts and are rung by pulling the clapper within. In the case of the Mother Earth Bell, the bell-ringer (with earplugs in place) stands on a platform and pushes the clapper, which swings back and forth in an ever-widening arc until it hits the side of the bell. All the other bells are rung from a separate platform. From here, the bell-ringer sounds the two other large bells ("Sacred Oil," and "Pestilence, Famine and Despair") with foot-pedals geared to the clapper, and strikes the fourteen smaller bells by hitting taut cables attached to each clapper and fastened to a waist-high ringing plate.

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Who rings the Bells?

The ringing of the Lowell House Bells is the raison d’etre of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers, a small group of earplug-wearing and weather-braving undergraduates advised by a resident tutor. Today’s bellringers are known as "Klappermeisters," and have passed on Bell lore and skill from generation to generation for the last half-century.

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How do the Bells sound?

You can hear the bells online here. Standing in the Bell Tower itself, the Mother Earth bell has a beautiful, deep, and resonant sound. The reverberations continue long after the last strike on the bell. The Lowell House bell-ringers have developed their own creative styles of ringing the bells. From within the Bell Tower, the bells are very loud – earplugs are generally worn by the Klappermeisters and are recommended for Bell Tower visitors.

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When are the Bells Rung?

Today, the Bells are rung every Sunday at 1pm and on special occasions such as High Table, other formal dinners, the annual playing of the 1812 Overture in the courtyard by the "Last Minute Orchestra," for the House Opera as needed, on Commencement morning, and for other important House or University occasions.

The Bells have also been sounded on New Year’s Eve, Independence Day, and as a memorial for the dead. For example, they were tolled for the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for the death of Matthew Shepard, and for the anniversary of the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

Historically the bells were also rung during or after House dances and to celebrate victorious home football games against Yale, though these practices have been discontinued by the present House masters.

In March of 2003, Lowell House had a special festive ringing of the bells in honor of the ceremony in Moscow marking the 700th anniversary of the Danilovsky Monastery.

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What has been student response to the Bells?

While student response to the bells has varied over the years, the first response was cautious, even negative. Most students were expecting to hear music as if from an English-style "carillon." Even President Lowell was rumored to have hoped that the bells would ring out the melody of "Fair Harvard." Such was not to be. The bells did not sound a chromatic scale and Saradjeff’s request to have more bells added to the zvon never came to fruition.

At the request of the University, the bells were first rung by Vsevolod Andronoff, a former Russian bellringer living near New York City, who came to Cambridge, practiced, and delivered a half-hour recital on Easter Sunday 1931. Senior Tutor Mason Hammond recalled the moment the practice began: "All the bells were rung together, and in particular the big bell made an uproar so loud that no one could do anything but listen."

Over the years, students have trained in ringing the bells and the ears of generations of Harvard students have become accustomed to their distinctive sound. Indeed, no great Cambridge festival or Harvard ceremony is complete without them.

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