The Russian Bells: Culture, Cacophony

New Lowell House Society Hopes To Produce Harmony at Last

In 1931 a Boston newspaper reported that the University was "hunting for someone who can lure harmony from 30 tons of metal." According to eight current members of Lowell House, the search has ended.

The Bellboys last week launched an organization to perpetuate the ringing of the Lowell House Russian bells, located in the cupola 128 steps above F entry.

The newly-formed Lowell House Society of Russian bell-ringers disagrees with the 1931 news account, which called the bells a "white elephants." Believing in the cultural value of the "zvon," as a Russian set of bells is properly termed, the group has undertaken to insure its maintenance and improve the quality of performance.

The bell-ringing enthusiasts admit the difficulty of giving a concert which would meet the approval of Cambridge ears. Because the zvon is based on a six-tone Eastern scale, it cannot render the gentle strains of "Fair Harvard" or other melodious selections played by ordinary carillions.

Zvons, however, are not without use in the western world, Edmund M. Parson '58, manager of the new society, insists. When Mercury Recordings produced the 1812 Overture recently, the company employed Yale's Harkness Tower chimes to simulate Russian bells. The Lowell bell-ringers are writing a letter in protest to a statement by the record's narrator that Yale's carillon gave the nearest facimile to Russian bells available in the United States.

There are those, however, who fail to share Parsons' enthusiasm for the cultural assets of Russian camponology. Vociferous complaints, particularly from residents of Lowell, have issued since the initial playing of the bells in the spring of 1931.

Catcall and Tin Pans

During the zvon's first years here, undergraduates responded to its music with catcalls, alarm-clocks, saxophones, and tin-pans. The Master at that time became so worried about the House's reputation that he temporarily forbad zvon-ringing until a suitable player could be found.

In the early thirties the responsibility of coaxing harmony from the zvon was shifted to the Music Department, and more recently to various residents of the House. Howard M. Brown, teaching fellow in Music and resident tutor at Lowell, assumed this Herculean task last year until a nucleus of interested students relieved him. Brown is faculty advisor to the new bell-ringing society.

The first official ringer of the Lowell House bells was as Russian as the zvon itself, which had belonged to the Danailovsky Monastery in Moscow. The bells were donated to the University in 1930 by Charles R. Crane, former United States ambassador to China, who puchased them from the Soviet Union.

Crane bought the bells at the persuasion of Thomas Whittemore, a romantic figure who had been active in the Russian Relief during World War I. Whittemore was interested in rescuing at least one of the characteristic Russian peals from the anti-religious zeal of the Communist regime.

The bells, ranging is weight from 22 pounds to 13 tons, arrived in Cambridge in November of 1930. With them, the Soviets sent their most expert zvon-ringer, Saradjeff, to supervize their installation and to play them.

He was a shy, vague character, who spoke only Russian and a smattering of German and French. Saradjeff's face had been seriously disfigured during the war, and this injury, or heredity, left him with a tendency to epileptic attacks.

Red vs. White

In an effort to make the visitor feel at home, A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of the University, lodged him with a White Russian who was lecturing in the Law School. This hospitality did not particularly warm the heart of the bell-ringer, who had been warned by the Soviet Government to have nothing to do with White Russians.