A final peal, then Harvard's no more
By Elizabeth Ross
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2008
Around the grounds of Lowell House at Harvard University, this year's commencement ceremony will echo with sounds that will soon be lost forever.
For nearly eight decades, the university residence hall has housed 17 Russian church bells whose solemn and mysterious tones have added a touch of gravitas to such occasions. On graduation day this Thursday, the bells will be rung at Harvard for the last time.
After the ceremonies, workers will begin the delicate task of removing the sacred bells, the largest of which weighs about 13 tons, from the bell tower at Lowell House, and preparing the belfry to receive a replacement set cast by a foundry in Russia.
The existing bells were donated to Harvard University in 1930 by American industrialist Charles R. Crane, who purchased them from the Soviet government. The bronze bells were cast in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and are among the few to have survived Stalin's campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church.
The bells' original home, the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, was reopened in 1983. Since then, the Danilov monks have been urging Harvard officials to return the bells, and after extensive negotiations and planning, the bells will be returned this summer to the monastery, which is the residence of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The project is being financed by a foundation established by Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg.
(Another Russian bell that hung at the Harvard Business School's Baker Library was returned to Danilov last September.)
On a recent damp and gray Sunday afternoon, guests were invited up to the Lowell House belfry for what was billed as a Russian bell-ringing concert.
As bright orange ear plugs were handed out to the visitors, members of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers, also known as Klappermeisters, began to work an intricate web of ropes and large foot pedals in order to strike the bells.
The students first performed a peal, modeled after one rung at the Assumption Cathedral in the Russian town of Rostov in the 1720s. Soon, they were serving up more popular fare with Christmas tunes such as "Jingle Bells" and music from Hanukkah and Purim, albeit with a Russian flavor.
After some American folk songs, and a couple of classical numbers, the students launched into theme music from "Chariots of Fire" and the "Star Wars" and Harry Potter movies.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at Harvard University's commencement ceremony this year, and the Lowell House bell-ringers said they hope she will visit the bell tower while she is in town.
According to Jeremy Lin, a Harvard senior and resident bell-ringer at Lowell House, the Klappermeisters have been practicing "Hedwig's Theme," the signature Harry Potter tune, for some time in anticipation of Rowling's visit.
"We do a ring every year for Halloween, and one of the things that started after Halloween is that somebody figured out how to play the Harry Potter theme," Lin said. "That person has since graduated, but we knew that it was possible, so we kind of worked up our own version and we thought that it would be nice to play for her."
The tune is a far cry from the sound typically heard in traditional Russian bell-ringing, which uses a range of rhythmic patterns rather than melodies, and has a deeply religious significance for devout Russian Orthodox believers.
Earlier this year, a small group of bell-ringers from Lowell House gained an appreciation of the spiritual significance of Russian bells when they attended an exhaustive training session in Moscow with bell-ringing masters from the Danilov Monastery and the Kremlin.
Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and co-master of Lowell House, said she hopes that Harvard students will continue to be trained by Russian bell-ringers for years to come.
"This is something we're really committed to having in the future, bell-ringers who know how they should be rung in the Russian fashion and continuing this educational relationship with bell schools in Russia," she said.
Lowell House bell-ringers, past and present, will have one more opportunity to enjoy their historic Russian bells before their swan song at Harvard on Thursday.
Eck is hosting a bell festival and symposium today and tomorrow, which will include several guests from Russia and will be a celebratory affair, she said.
Benjamin Rapoport, the head bell-ringer at Lowell House and a resident tutor, agreed. After the recent bell-ringing concert wrapped up, he explained how he and others at Harvard felt about the return of the bells.
"This is the opening of a new chapter in the history of the bells, and I'm quite happy to see them going back to their home, and I'm also quite happy to see a beautiful new set of bells coming to Lowell House," Rapoport said. "So I think that the future of the bells is very bright, and I look forward to seeing what's going to happen."
Visit boston.com/cityweekly to view a slide show and hear the bells play "Hedwig's Theme."
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