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Russian Tradition of Semantron, aka Slavic Flat Bells, Part 1
June 9, 2015 14:44


Semantron (“bilo” in Russian) is one of the most ancient and simple but powerful music instruments. The resounding spellbinding voice of these ancient Slavic flat bells was known in Russia long before the coming of Christianity. The semantron has been used in the Orthodox Christian East since times immemorial. Thus, the famous St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople had neither bells, nor bell towers.
Semantrons of various types were widely used in monasteries and cities. They were made of metal, wood and even stone, especially in the areas that had no other material but stone.
The Russian name of the semantron – bilo – comes from the root of the Old Russian word “beat”. The sound is made with beating a stick or a special hammer on the flat surface of the bilo.
The wooden semantron was a plank made of maple, ash-tree, beech, or birch. Depending on its shape, size and material, which varied, the instrument gave different sounds. Metal semantrons (known since the 6th century) were made of iron, copper, cast iron, and bell bronze. Stone semantrons were known in the Solovetsky Monastery in the 15th century.
Ringing these flat bells is an ancient tradition in Russia. The earliest written Old Russian sources that mention the bilo are chronicles of the 11th – 15th centuries. The semantron was not unique for Old Russia; it existed and still exists in lots of countries.


The small bilo was sometimes made in the form of a balancing beam, an arch that symbolized the dome of heaven and had the voice of the thundering sky. Its sounds served as a notification signal to local dwellers of some important event: a fire, an enemy attack, a community gathering to solve various daily tasks, and beginning of a church service.
As for church bells, there was long-term mistrust of them in Russia, since they were associated with Catholicism. However, an active process of introducing bells from the Western Europe into Russia was propelled in the 15th century and the semantrons were nearly supplanted from monasteries.
However, the present day charter of church ringing provides placing the flat bells of semantrons along with usual bells in various combinations on belltowers. Thanks to this solution the sound timbres of flat and traditional bells constantly blend together and intertwine thus creating an uncountable variety of tone combinations that deepen the emotional and sensory perception of ringing.

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Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Music Instruments Russian Music Bell Ringing Semantron Bells 

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