The Russian Bells of Lowell House
The bell tower that rises over the entry of Lowell House contains a priceless and surprising treasure: a new set of seventeen Russian bells. How they came to be here is a fascinating story that links Lowell House in a unique relationship with the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. From 1930 to 2008, the Lowell House tower housed one of the most famous Russian bell sets in the world, rescued from certain destruction in Stalin's Russia and donated to Harvard. In the summer of 2008, these famous old bells were returned to their historic home at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow and a new set of 17 bells, cast in one of Russia's finest new foundries, was hoisted into the bell tower.
The history of these bells at Lowell House began as Lowell House was being built. The tower had originally been designed as a clock tower, larger but similar to that of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. When President Lowell received word of the gift of the bells, he had tower construction halted and reworked to support the bells. In October of 1930, just after the first Lowell House students had moved in, a long flatbed truck pulled up to the House with huge Russian bells for the tower. Getting the largest bell weighing some 13 tons into the tower was a challenging project!
The Russian bells were a gift of the American industrialist, Charles R. Crane, a
man who had left his work in business for a life of diplomacy, philanthropy, and travel in the Middle East, China, and Russia. He served as ambassador to China under President Wilson and had visited Russia many times in the first two decades of the 20th century. He loved Russian culture, had many close contacts in Russia, and had seen the country most recently in an extended train trip across Russia in 1920-21, following the revolution. By the late 1920s, churches and monasteries throughout Russia were being closed and destroyed.
The voice of the bells, the sound-scape of old Russia, was silenced by a political regime committed to replacing the sound of bells with the sound of factory whistles and machines. During Stalin's reign, most of the bells of Russia were pushed from their towers to be broken up or melted down. In 1930, through his intermediary Thomas Whittemore, Crane managed to purchase the bells of the Danilov monastery in Moscow, a monastery dating to the 13th century. The Danilov bells were saved, but the monastery was closed and turned into a home for the children of political prisoners. In 1937, the remaining monks of Danilov monastery were executed.
This bell set ranged in size from the largest, the 13 ton Bolshoy or "Biggest" Bell that became known to Harvard as "Mother Earth," to small bells a little larger than a football, played together with a set of reins as "trills." The great Mother Earth bell was cast by the Finlandsky Foundry in 1890 and is circled by a large, gracefully scrolling band. Its cartouches include an icon of St. Daniel and Alexander Nevsky, along with other saints and the donor of the bell. The second largest, "Sacred Oil," contains a series of circular cartouches containing various icons, including a fine image of St. Daniel, patron of the Danilov Monastery, holding the church. The Lenten Bell is the third largest. Its band of grapes and leaves is extraordinarily beautiful and its iconography includes distinctive images of St. Nicholas and Mary, John the Baptist holding the cross, and Christ holding the Holy Scriptures. These three large bells have been artistically duplicated in the new bell set.
The Soviet government returned control of the Danilov monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1983 to enable the Church to prepare for the 1000-year anniversary of Christianity in Russia. In subsequent years, the Church made many inquiries about the possible return of the Russian Bells from Harvard. On the whole, the project seemed formidable and did not elicit attention from Harvard presidents and administrators.
In 2003, however, the Monastery made a fresh inquiry along with a request to visit the Lowell House bells. At last, an official delegation including representatives of the Russian government and the Danilov monastery arrived in December of 2003. The head of the monastery, Archimandrite Alexey, met with Diana Eck, Vice-President Alan Stone, and other University representatives. The chief Danilov bellringer, Father Roman, who had hitherto heard our bells only on the Internet, rang the historic bells for the first time. Discussions between Harvard and the Russian delegation about the possible return of the bells began in earnest. It was agreed that Harvard would bear the expense of an engineering and feasibility study, but that the expense of construction, shipping, and making a replacement set of bells would be borne by the Russian side.
The Bells Project was now underway. The Link of Times Foundation, established by Viktor Vekselberg to support the preservation of Russian artistic treasures, agreed to bear the cost of the project to return the historic bells and cast a new set of bells. In August of 2006, a small delegation from Harvard spent ten days in Russia visiting five of the major foundries now making traditional Russian bells, an art that had almost been lost during the seventy years in which no bells were cast. They learned about the process of bell-casting, a lost-wax process with many variations. Accompanied by Russian experts, they had chance to compare the sound, the iconography, the decoration, and the inscriptions of newly-cast bells, as well as to hear the bells of these foundries in churches and bell towers.
The Vera Foundry in Voronezh was selected to cast the new bells. In February 2007, Bellmaster Valery Anisimov, came to Harvard along with a delegation of bell experts from Russia. They analyzed the sound and placement of the bells and made rubber molds of the iconography and ornamentation of the four largest bells. In the spring of 2007, Harvard's Project Manager, Peter Riley, worked closely with the foundry to assure the quality of the new bells as they were being cast. Finally, in May 2007, Master Diana Eck, Tutor Ben Rapoport, Historian Luis Campos, and Musicology Professor Hans Tutschku went to Voronezh along with Peter Riley and
Sean Buffington of the Provost's office. They inspected the new bells. Expert bell-ringers tried them out and recorded the sound. They were beautiful, both in tone and execution.
On July 24, 2007, the truck bearing the new bells of Lowell House stopped at the Danilov Monastery en route to the port at St. Petersburg. Masters Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin were on hand for a large festive gathering at the monastery. Patriarch Alexey II of the Russian Orthodox Church, sprinkled the new bells to bless them on their way. The Patriarch, the Mayor of Moscow, the Minister of Culture, the Founder of the Link of Times Foundation, and the Master of Lowell House all spoke about the historic importance of this exchange.
In the spring of 2008, the historic Lowell House bells were celebrated in a program at Arts First weekend, and on June 1 and 2, right before Commencement, Harvard hosted a symposium on the bells at the Barker Center and a bell-ringing festival in the Lowell House courtyard, with some of the finest bell-ringers from Russia joining Lowell House bell-ringers who had returned, some of them after twenty or more years, to bid farewell and mark the end of an era. At Commencement 2008, the old bells of Lowell House rang for the last time following the diploma ceremony in the courtyard.
On July 8, 2008, as the last of the old bells was being removed from the tower, an official signing ceremony was held in which President Drew Faust transferred the title to the old bells to Danilov Monastery and Vladimir Voronchenko of the Link of Times Foundation transferred title to the new bells to Harvard University. This was a festive occasion as both old and new bells were lined up on flatbed trucks, side by side, along Holyoke Street.
Over more than seven decades, Lowell House has developed its own culture, traditions, and styles of bell-ringing. By the 1950s, the bell-ringing society of Звонари / Klappermeisters had formed with its own life and lore. On the whole, however, there was little knowledge of how to ring the bells in the Russian style. In the past few years this has changed dramatically, as Russian bell-ringers have held master classes in the bell tower, giving hands-on instruction in bell-ringing to Harvard students. Twice our own Звонари / Klappermeisters have traveled to Russia to study bell culture and to receive instruction in ringing from Father Roman and the monks of Danilov monastery. This is a cultural and musical exchange that will continue in the years to come.
The bells of Lowell House ring out on Sundays at 1:00, and for high tables and house occasions. They announce New Years and Commencements. They are the premier bells to ring with all the bells of Cambridge as the Commencement ceremony in Harvard Yard concludes. As graduates arrive in procession from the Yard, the bells greet them, and as the Lowell House ceremonies conclude, the bells offer a final festival ring. The class of 2009 will be the first to be celebrated by the new bells.
There is an extensive history of the Bells on the Lowell House website, linked also to the Danilov Monastery website in Russia. Be sure to climb to the bell tower one Sunday to see them for yourself!