Entrance to Alexander Nevsky Monastery, resting place of Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky, among others. (stock photo)
Cemeteries have always fascinated me, and I have visited them all over the world.
On a recent trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia, I visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Founded in 1710, it contains some of the oldest structures in the city besides boasting several unique burial grounds – including one for World War II Soviet generals, another for famous composers, and one for the motherland’s most noted authors. It's a who’s who of Russian history carved in giant slabs of granite and marble. It is also full of cloistered monks who go about with hooded robes and heads bowed to avoid public attention.
I wandered through the maze of stone monoliths visiting Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin, when the clock struck 5 o’clock and the church bell began to toll. I counted five rings, but then, not only did the tolling continue, slowly, one by one, additional bells took up the call.
The Musical Monk in his tower.
The bell tower was too high up and my camera lens too small to see with any great detail, but I could just detect the silhouette of a lone monk in the open window. There were eight bells of various sizes, all of them linked to a central control point by ropes.
The bells began to peel softly and slowly, and I could see the monk working the ropes, using a deft touch at first, and then gradually ascending in volume and tone as he became more animated. He seemed to be working his way from the smaller bells to the larger ones whose tones were so deep I could feel their vibrations where I stood. I could see him pulling on each individual rope and realized he was not just announcing time but creating a symphonic work. His movements increased as did the tempo and cadence, and within a few seconds he was moving like a symphonic conductor – or perhaps, and more likely, he was filled with religious fervor. He was not just making music, he was creating a prayer.
The monk began to bounce from side to side as he manipulated the ropes, dancing as much as playing, and I could see that he was also using both legs, operating some sort of foot pedals – probably akin to those on a piano – which seemed to make subtle variations in the tones. His entire body was as animated as the swinging bells, and I was surprised such sounds could be produced by an inanimate object, no matter how it was struck. This monk was not just a musician; he was a virtuoso of the highest caliber. Being cloistered I knew he did not speak, but sounds like this required no words. The bells spoke for him.
By now everyone in the church yard and cemetery had stopped and was staring, heads back and mouths open, at the aging tower that was issuing these heavenly tones through the blue skies of Saint Petersburg. I closed my eyes, gave myself to the music, and can honestly say I have rarely enjoyed an entire symphonic ensemble as much as I did this lone monk playing the bells. But that was just the opening act.
I finally checked my watch and realized that ten minutes had passed, but not only was the monk still playing, but he had picked up the pace and was now moving like a man possessed. It brought to mind statues of saints I had seen, in complete communion with God and in total ecstasy, and I wondered if I was privy to a one-time mystical event, or did this otherwise silent man do this with regularity? Was this how he prayed daily? It was hard to imagine one not completely taken by religious fervor doing this on a regular schedule.
The concert continued for a full half hour, not with an abrupt ending, but a gradual diminishing of volume and strikes as subtle as it had begun. The final notes as fine as a hummingbird's wings, gossamer tones floating on the wind, seemed to linger for several minutes, and as the last tone faded into the ether, the little monk gave a slight wave and disappeared from sight.
The crowd stayed, unmoving for several minutes, and I waited by the tower entrance. In a few minutes a tiny monk appeared, his head covered in his cowl. He walked past without speaking, head lowered, and as he did I quietly said, “Thank you.”
He stopped, turned slightly in my direction and gave a nod of his head before passing into the crowd unnoticed.