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Listen, Download: The Fabled Bells of St. Petersburg

WFMT's Jesse McQuarters at the bell tower

Milwuakee Symphony Broadcast, Wednesday at 8:00 PM

Climbing any kind of tall ladder can be a seemingly death-defying ordeal for a 6’5″ radio producer with an embarrassingly high center of gravity. Clambering up a pencil-thin ladder at Vladimirskaya Cathedral, worn with countless decades of passage, into the bowels of a bell tower in St. Petersburg, then, must be an exercise in madness. Laden with recording gear and with cautionary remarks in Russian being lost to the wind below, hoping that my elegantly high-heeled translator wasn’t aware of my clumsiness as she effortlessly ascended, I keep going.

As the the hour unfolds, the bell ringers of Vladimirsky Cathedral slowly unveil their craft. “One must have the purest of hearts to ring the bells, to call the parishioners to service,” their leader, an uncharacteristically buoyant soul named Vladimir, told me in Russian. As someone who is lucky enough to be surrounded by classical musicians day in and day out, this focus on absolute spiritual purity is a mantra sometimes lost amidst talk of 32nd note runs and dominant 7th chords. I caught myself wondering if Dostoyevsky, who listened to these very bells ring every day from his flat around the corner, sensed that pureness as he wove tales of betrayal, murder, and life on the fringes of society.

What Vladimir and his disciples show me is fascinating—bell-ringing at Russian Orthodox churches are almost always done as an ensemble. The bells themselves are stationary, and ropes run from the clappers to the central podium. There, they are tied off in a line, and played by pressing down on the ropes, almost like a piano keyboard. Others are attached to foot pedals, and still others are held in the hand, requiring complex three-dimensional movements that recall both the complex movements of sign language and interpretive dance.

Vladimir is kind enough to arrange a demonstration of the layering of syllables that drive the rhythm of the bell-ringing, all of which have sacred origins.

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After sharing their craft for more than an hour, I’m excited to make the final ascent to the outdoor portion of the tower for the call to worship.

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These are the same bells that Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, and countless other Russian composers heard as they traversed the streets of St. Petersburg, on their way to the Conservatory and the Mariinsky Theatre across the street. Bells are so important to Russian music, in fact, that there is a giant one installed backstage at the Mariinsky, ready to peal at intense moments in the dramatic action. We’ll certainly hear their influence in this week’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra broadcast as Rachmaninoff sets text of Edgar Allen Poe, as translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, The Bells.

 

Special thanks to Tanya Melikova, Mary Gavrish, Elena Vitenberg, the bell-ringers of Vladimirskaya Cathedral, The Likhachev Foundation in St. Petersburg, and the School of Music at Western Michigan University.

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