That was the reaction at St Spiridon’s Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle— our 10th client— when it got its first genuine Russian bell in the year 2000. Not surprisingly, they came back for more.
Seattle City Council
We got into the bell business in 1998 when Fr Stephan Meholick of St Nicholas Orthodox Church in San Anselmo, California asked us to help bring the first set of Russian bells to this country in nearly a century. After getting that first set, and then another one, we realized there was a need and a desire for “the real thing”. Thus we began operating under the name “Blagovest Bells“, which we thought was fitting because “Blagovest” is Russian both for “good news” and for the first bell that announces the church services.
“Blagovest” is Russian both for “good news” and for the first bell that announces the church services.
Fr Stephan had been into bells for years— he’s actually an award-winning ringer and a master musician. He got really excited when he heard Russia was making bells again. So he found some donors, we worked out the connections, and after four different additions, St Nicholas now has a complete set of eleven Russian bells ranging from 7 up to 3000 pounds. You can hear them from time to time if you’re in the neighborhood— the neighbors love them. That’s even true of the neighbor whose bedroom window is only 40 feet away, and St Spiridon’s bells were featured in a presentation to the Seattle City Council as a strong reason why the neighborhood’s historic charm should be preserved!
“You can think of bells as the voice of the earth, and the earth plays an important place in our worship in a lot of different ways,” says Fr Stephan, a well-known figure in San Anselmo’s community gardening scene.
Blagovest is really the only firm in the Western Hemisphere that is so well-positioned for this business. Our General Manager, Mark Galperin, PhD, is a nuclear physicist by training, and he became Moscow’s biggest Xerox dealer during Russia’s Perestroika. He is fully adept at all the regulations and procedures of importing heavy equipment. Fr Stephan Meholick is a well-known musician in Russian Orthodox circles, an award-winning bell-ringer, and a true master of all the musical and practical aspects of the campanic arts— and he’s ever-ready to provide expert musicological consulting and practical advice. We have developed a network of trained ringers who can give you tips on setting up your system, and even travel to your location to train your ringers.
We can import bells of up to 30 tons
We can import bells of up to 30 tons from any firm in Russia, but we rely mainly on three, because of their experience and the particular qualities of their bells: Pyatkov & Co., a foundry in the Ural Mountains, Vera LLC of Voronezh, and ODMK, an offshoot of ZIL, the former Soviet automobile company. They all make excellent bells— some say they sound better even than the historic ones at Holy Trinity Cathedral on Green Street in San Francisco.
Bell-ringing has made a dramatic comeback in Russia since Perestroika, in the late 1980s. Starting with a few bells cast in 1995, the output of each of several Russian foundries now surpasses that of all European bell-makers put together.
This is not the first time Americans have heard Russian bells. There are six historic sets in churches around the continent, including Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco. In fact, the facility that cast the bells at our own St Nicholas Church actually cast the bells and cannons used at Fort Ross, California over 200 years ago. And Admiral Bering’s cannons were made there as well— although of course a different company operated the furnaces back then!
Bell making reached unsurpassed heights in Russia by the beginning of the 20th century, when an estimated 4 million pounds of bronze sang from the towers of Moscow alone. And that’s not even counting the quarter-million pound “Tsar Bell”, damaged in a fire in the 1700′s before it could be raised from its casting pit. Now a well-known Kremlin tourist attraction, the great cracked bell was big enough even to serve for a while as a chapel.
But the Revolution nearly put an end to Russia’s bell culture overnight. During the 20’s and 30’s, tens of thousands of bells were thrown out of towers and melted down to make tractors, statues of Lenin, and bullets. Only with Perestroika could Russia’s great bell-making and bell-playing traditions to emerge again— and ironically, some of those statues have ended up as bells once again.
Russian bells are different than those of Europe. They have a more organic tuning, and they don’t swing— you pull on their ‘tongues’ to make them sing. So they’re like ‘talking drums’, and there are both compositional and improvisatory approaches to bell-ringing. A handbook from one monastery goes on for 53 pages about what to do on different occasions.
Individual virtuosity is encouraged. It’s a living art, and a living tradition. Each tower has its own master, and each player, a personal touch.