Constantine Stade is an expert in bellringing in the Russian Tradition. In 2018, he founded New Creation Bellringing, a consultation service that assists American churches in setting up bells and properly ringing them.
A. Gould: How did you become interested in the art of Russian bell ringing?
C. Stade: The sound of Orthodox church bells has been a vivid part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up as a priest’s son, I don’t have any memories of Paschal processions, quiet weekday liturgies, vigils, weddings, or funerals that were not punctuated by the sound of bellringing. I say the sound of bellringing, however, because the sounds I was hearing were from a PA system on the church roof connected to a cassette player. We did have a single bell that we would ring from time to time, but mostly what I was hearing were peals recorded from various historic Orthodox bell towers in the U.S. This was of course a far cry from experiencing the physical energy of live bells, but the aural landscape of the Orthodox bellringing tradition was soaking into my consciousness before I was old enough to identify it.
As the years went by I gradually began to encounter full sets of real, hand-rung bells, but as of the mid-1990s, complete sets of bells rung in the Russian style were still few and far between, let alone bells that had been cast in Russia. I do remember the penetrating energy of the blagovestnik (the largest bell in a set) at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, and the way the sound affected my body like a gunshot that didn’t dissipate. I had similar experiences during a trip to Russia in 2003, but I had not yet rung a complete set of bells before my home parish of St. John Chrysostom in House Springs, Missouri purchased seven bells from a foundry in Russia in 2007. During that time I became acquainted with Mark Galperin and his company, Blagovest Bells, which had for more than a decade been importing sets of Russian bells to the United States. Through educational materials he provided, as well as other recordings and videos, I taught myself the right-hand ringing technique of three bells with their ropes tied together. When our new bells arrived, I hung them on the beams we had prepared in a way that seemed reasonably functional and consistent with what I had seen elsewhere. I also set up a ringing system of the same design I had seen everywhere in Russia. After several weeks of practicing (which I’m sure I enjoyed much more than my church’s neighbors), I was able to ring the combined set of all eight bells in a coordinated peal of layered rhythms, like I had seen and heard.
From then on, through a variety of different sources, including the friendship and mentorship of Mark Galperin, I began installing sets of recently purchased bells, and sharing the technical and musical insights I had gained in the process. I’ve installed, reinstalled, consulted, and taught in communities across the U.S., and with each project I am more impressed by the versatility and ingenuity of the Russian system of bellringing.
A. Gould: Are there different styles of bell ringing among the national Orthodox churches?
C. Stade: Travelling to various Orthodox countries you will see a variety of styles and ringing systems. But in the midst of that variety there appear to me to be only two fully-formed bellringing traditions, and all the regional forms derive elements from them. The tradition with which we in the West are most familiar is the swinging tower bell, where a bellringer rings a single bell by pulling a rope from a distance below the bell, causing the bell itself to swing on an axle, and the clapper to hit the edge of the bell on each rotation. In the Russian tradition, the bellringer stands on the same level as the majority of the bells, and can rings more than a dozen simultaneously by bringing the tongue (clapper) to the edge of the bell.
The ringing mechanisms and musical patterns of bellringing in the Balkan countries vary widely and are not specific to particular national Churches. When the ringing is not in the purely Western style, it seems to be an amalgamation of the two methods, whereby stationary tower bells are sounded by ringers standing well below where the bell hangs. Most often, however, Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe that are outside the Great-Russian liturgical influence will simply ring bells in the Western tradition, as described above. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the sound of church bells was systematically suppressed during the Ottoman occupation. Any indigenous bellringing tradition that may have existed in the Middle East was lost during those centuries. It is fascinating to note, however, that the method and music of bellringing on Mt. Athos is almost identical to the Russian style and seems be an offshoot of that tradition.
Thus, although a few different methods exist among non-Russian Orthodox Churches, there is no particular tradition that is developed enough to be comparable to the highly-structured Russian tradition.
A. Gould: Could you describe the Russian bell ringing system in more detail?
C. Stade: To achieve the layered rhythmic patterns that characterize a peal of Russian church bells, the set is divided into three groups of bells based on their weights and pitches. The ropes from the smallest several bells are tied together and rung quickly with the ringer’s right hand. The middle bells are rung by pressing down on a horizontal line that runs from the tongue of each bell to a waist-high post set to the left of the ringer. The largest one or two bells are rung with a foot pedal that pulls the tongue against the side of the bell.
The Russian tradition allows a single bellringer to ring many bells together in a coherent, sophisticated, complex, and musical way. Most Orthodox communities in America do not have the musical staff for two or more bellringers to ring the bells multiple times each service on a daily basis. Thus, having a system that enables a single person to ring all the bells is immensely helpful. The design of the ringing system requires no pulleys or parts that will wear out through friction, and when implemented correctly, is very ergonomic and comfortable to use.
A. Gould: What is your assessment of the state of Orthodox bell ringing in America – the bells and their installation, as well as the quality of performance?
C. Stade: We need to seriously examine the liturgical arts we have inherited as an American Church and make sure we understand them before we choose to create something from scratch. The majority of parishes that have purchased authentic church bells from Russia or elsewhere have installed them in a manner that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ring them properly.
Most often you will encounter bells which are hung along a beam with one rope hanging down from each bell. The smallest bells, most difficult to control at a high tempo, end up being placed on a beam above the head of the bellringer, adding an unnecessary level of difficulty to an already complex musical endeavor. Bellringers are stuck with their arms above their heads pulling awkwardly with one rope in each hand. The other common alternative I’ve seen is to invent a ringing system involving pulleys, springs, tubes, and handles to allow the bells to be rung by a person in a room below, not in the actual tower.
The end result of these deficiencies in the craft of installation is a peal that might have the very rough shape of a traditional peal, but is unrefined and lacks the spontaneity and rhythmic vitality that characterize the tradition. In addition, due mostly to a lack of resources and training programs, the full breadth of peals and tolls that are called for throughout the year are rarely heard. These include the Chain-Peals for Water Blessings, feasts of the Cross, the unique funeral toll that runs across the entire set of bells one at a time, and several others.
The bells themselves that I have encountered are generally of high quality, be they newer Russian bells or historic bells cast in America. In many installations I’ve had success mixing bells of different backgrounds, with a really interesting result.
When it comes to their installation, I’ve seen everything from steel cables and u-bolts to nylon rope. None of these options, however, have ever been a sufficient deterrent to theft, which is a constant problem, particularly for bells installed at ground level.
A. Gould: Your consultation business is meant to help with all of these problems. Can you describe what you do at a typical visit to a parish?
C. Stade: The bulk of my work falls into two categories: installing new sets of bells that have been recently purchased, and refitting previous installations to make them more functional. The process for both is usually the same. After collecting information about the scope of the project, the size, weight, and number of bells, and the dimensions of the space intended to house the bells, I make recommendations to refit the space, including adjusting the height of beams as needed. For each bell, I design and fabricate a metal bracket with custom security hardware, all scaled to the size and weight of the bell. My work on site includes lifting the bells into place using manual chain hoists or other lifts, installing the brackets and security hardware, and setting up the ringing system. Depending on the amount of preparation done before my arrival, this could take anywhere from two to seven days. Depending on the time available, I’ll then conclude my time there with bellringing lessons for the lead bellringer, with the intention that they will continue to teach others. I also work with clergy and choir directors to guide them through the process of fully integrating the bellringing typicon into their parish life.
A. Gould: Can you tell us about any particularly difficult or problematic situations you’ve come across, and how you were able to help?
C. Stade: The central problem I encounter again and again is an insufficiently developed ringing system. It’s a real tragedy to see communities that have invested many thousands of dollars in a set of fantastic bells but have settled for a seriously sub par performance—peals that sound stilted and uncoordinated. This is not the fault of the ringers – this art has not been approached systematically. As people learn more about the venerable Western bellringing tradition that subconsciously (and understandably) informs their outlook, we can begin to elucidate the differences between that tradition and our own Orthodox traditions.
In order to fully engage with our Orthodox tradition, it’s necessary to point out where historical Western Christianity has unconsciously informed our liturgical experience. Specifically what comes to mind is the reaction that many people have to the ubiquitous and most ancient of the four types of Orthodox bellringing, called the Blagovest, which is essentially a slow toll of the largest bell for about ten to twenty minutes before absolutely every service. It functions as a call to prayer, and gives time for the people who live nearby to finish their preparations and make their way to the church. Each stroke is spaced with enough time to let the sound die away, and each successive stroke adds a level of urgency to the person who hears it, almost as if to say, “Another moment now in life has passed, bringing you closer to your final encounter with God. Hurry, so as not to be late and miss it!” That tension and urgency is released just before the service in a ecstatic, energetic peal of all the bells, which serves as a final gateway into the start of the service.
In contrast to that musical and perhaps even theological experience, the sound of a single bell tolling slowly is universally identified in the West as the sound of the funeral bell. I once rang the bells for the wedding of a friend, and when ringing the usual slow call to prayer while waiting for the bride to arrive, the local priest confronted me about what I was doing, saying that it sounded, understandably, like a funeral. I don’t hold him at fault, of course, but it illustrated to me how much room there is for us to grow in our making the Orthodox traditions our own.
A. Gould: In my city of Charleston, we have a guild of change ringers who play bells in the English Tradition at local historic churches. Once I brought them by our church to demonstrate our Russian bells, and this was a wonderful experience for all of us. Have you had any opportunities to reach out to the non-Orthodox world of bell ringing, and do you think this could be a missionary opportunity?
C. Stade: I think we should take every opportunity to build bridges with non-Orthodox liturgical artists, especially those who are better at their respective crafts than we are. When I lived in Chicago, I had the opportunity to connect with a group that advocated the use and preservation of historic hand-rung tower bells throughout the city—of which there were far more than I imagined. Although installations of Orthodox church bells, particularly those in real towers, are not present in every city, people I encounter have always been interested to learn about our rhythmic peals and their development from the semantron and talanton of ancient desert monasticism. When it comes to people being moved by the truthful beauty of our liturgical art, however, I’m afraid that a culture of Orthodox bellringing in our country is still very much in its infancy, and needs to be cultivated diligently before we have something truly worthwhile to offer those around us.
A. Gould: What is your vision for the future of bell ringing in America?
C. Stade: A number of years ago, before I had traveled to very many American churches, I was asked to judge a bellringing contest at a parish in Michigan. Not surprisingly, the team that rang the best and won the contest was the team of bellringers from that church, being familiar with that particular ringing system. I realized from that experience that we as a national Church are so far away from being on the same page when it comes to bellringing. The first order of business in building a culture of liturgical bellringing is to help communities find a common, systematic approach. In my opinion, the practicality and flexibility of the Russian ringing system make it the best option as we move forward. Having been through the process so many times now with parishes, I feel that helping a community attempt to invent a new system of ringing with every installation is not the best way to approach this. My goal in the next decade is to ensure that every community serious about liturgical growth has an approach to ringing that will allow a trained bellringer from any other community to step in and ring using the same technique learned and mastered elsewhere. As I travel and teach, each bellringer is relieved to know that there is in fact a single method of ringing that solves each problem of body mechanics, physical coordination, and peal composition that they’ve encountered. Once we have a better grasp of the technical elements, we can then begin the process of fostering true artists who can elevate the culture.
As a church musician and choir conductor, I’ve been involved in many conversations about the development of a new “American Chant,” and what that might look like. I think that process will develop in a natural way, but certainly will not be successful unless we first master every detail of the arts that have been passed down to us. The goal for us as liturgical artists is to bring an elevated experience of worship into reality, to confront the chaos of our rapidly fragmenting society with the transcendent beauty and heavenly order that we encounter in our worship of God. The explosion of life on Pascha night, the quiet contemplation of an afternoon Vespers, and all that lies between is deepened and made more vivid by our hands-on bellringing. Our Church’s bells are such a conspicuous voice in the public square, and we should seriously evaluate how much thought and preparation we have invested in such a public and evangelistic ministry.
A. Gould: Thank you, Constantine, for your unique and much-needed ministry, and for holding us to the high standards that liturgical art deserves!
Visit Constantine Stade’s website: New Creation Bellringing