This blog often posts non-political material on the weekend, although I don't think I've ever published a non-political piece by someone else. As it happens, I've long wanted to write about one of my favorite pieces of 20th century music -- Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony 7, the "Leningrad" symphony, his musical reaction to the Nazi invasion of the USSR. A few weeks ago, Bill Dash sent me an article on that very work.
Don't go away. I know many of you don't like the classics, but this work has one hell of a story behind it -- a story that put Shostakovich on the cover of Time Magazine. No other work of art -- not even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- has such an astounding backstory.
Anyone who talks about the Seventh inevitably focuses on the first movement, specifically on THAT theme -- the Nazis-on-the-march tune. (It starts at about 5:35 in the YouTube video embedded above.) Weirdly enough, the melody is jaunty and fun at first. On further iterations, it becomes menacing, violent, overwhelming, cosmic, apocalyptic. This movement is like Bolero, except it's about Nazis. (Compare to Kilar's Exodus, which is like Bolero except it's about Jews.) THAT theme haunted Shostakovich all his life -- he sounds it again at the very end of his final symphony, the Fifteenth (which is magnificent in its own right).
If you want to give the Seventh a try, please play a recording of it at the appropriate volume. If you don't get an eviction notice, you aren't playing it loud enough. There should be blood trickling out of your ears.
In 1979, the CIA released an obvious work of propaganda -- an alleged Shostakovich autobiography. The original MS is "unavailable," natch. According to this book, Shostakovich was a lifelong dissident and everything he wrote contains covert critiques of godless Bolshevism -- even the wartime Seventh, which should be interpreted as a criticism of Stalin, not Hitler. Now, I have no doubt that Shostakovich detested Stalin, and for damned good reason. But the true meaning of the Seventh is clear to anyone with ears, and the bullshit about that symphony printed in Testimony is all the evidence we need to prove that the book is, at least in part, a typical cold war fake.
I'll let Bill tell the rest of the story...
* * *
Every so often I get a yen to listen to Shostakovich’s Symphony number 7 in C major , opus 60, known more popularly as The Leningrad Symphony, or just “The Leningrad”. It centers my spirits
Critically, the Seventh tends often to be given short shrift. Not surprisingly those on the far right loathe it, I suspect as much out of jealousy as because of its being a product of Communism. Fascism has never brought forth anything that even vaguely comes close to being its equal. But across the political spectrum, from right to left, the Leningrad frequently receives low marks. Highbrow snoots, dilettantes, the terminally chic, and the squeamishly genteel regard it with disdain for being overly marshal, as well as melodramatic and mawkish. Legitimate complaints, if true. But are they?
Personally, I think it’s a bum rap. True, there’s no mistaking the fact that “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn” it definitely is not. And yes, it has a something of a theatrical film-score quality, which to my ear is hardly a liability considering the Seventh is easily in the league of the great Hollywood cinematic composers like Bernard Herman, Miklos Rosas, Franz Waxman, and Wolfgang Korngold. (Shostakovich was an avid cinema watcher and an admirer of film-scores) There’s no denying, too, that the Leningrad is on the long side and probably might have benefited from some editing. Overall though, it seems to me that objections to the Seventh, more often than not, are based mainly on musical prejudice and political snobbery.
For those unsettled by its raw pathos, its recurring passages of driving, machinelike energy, and its skillful, almost operatic use of melodramatic themes, then something that can make the piece more accessible, providing there is an open-minded willingness to allow one’s horizons to expand, is to hear the way the Seventh Symphony bears a striking similarity to the graphic art of Social-Realism from the 1920s and ‘30s. However corrupt the cause it championed, Soviet Social-Realism occasionally produced, along with a hellava lot of dross, some very powerful images.
But even at its best, Social-Realism is still propaganda. Shostakovich ingeniously subverted and adapted key aspects of Social-Realism into a musical form that he could use, not to perpetuate the drone of Marxist-Leninist dogma, but instead to present the inspiring saga of Leningrad’s remarkable history of flourishing despite the crushing tyranny of the Czars, followed by the soulless rule of Bolshevism, and later still under the bitter scourge of the Fascist invaders -- and here’s the key – to accomplish all this without provoking Stalin, or any of his henchmen.
Desperate to contend with the chaos triggered by the devastating German blitzkrieg, the Kremlin was forced to invoke a temporary loosening of its otherwise draconian censorship restrictions. Shostakovich brilliantly exploited this situation. Holed up within besieged Leningrad, inside what turned out to be one of history’s most gruesome deathtraps, with the very real possibility of his own death staring him in the face, he felt, oddly enough, liberated and emboldened. Ignoring party directives, he framed his composition not for the more fastidious ears of the communist intelligentsia (as were his standing instructions from the Ministry of Culture) but rather created what he knew might be his last symphony to resonate deeply with the workers and common people and indeed anyone who possessed an ounce of authentic patriotic ardor.
I would never maintain that works of art automatically require an understanding of their historical context in order to be enjoyed. On the contrary, the very greatest works are characterized by an astonishing ability to strike immediate and powerful connections many centuries, or even millennia after their period of creation. But some art definitely is more tethered to an historical context, and can be undervalued if the circumstances out of which it arose go unappreciated.
I believe the Leningrad Symphony is such a case. When one takes into account, without critical prejudice, the extraordinary circumstances that brought forth the Seventh, then its boldly unashamed emotionality, its exuberant will to embrace life despite all the onerous travails, and its grim do-or-die resolve to pay the terrible cost not to succumb to barbarism, begin making a great deal more sense musically.
How Shostakovich actually came to compose the Leningrad is quite an amazing story.
It was summer 1941, the darkest days of WWII. The historic and architecturally magnificent city of Saint Petersburg, ensconced on the eastern shores of the Baltic, known as the Venice of the North, cradle of the Revolution, and re-christened Leningrad by the Communists, was one of Russia’s greatest cultural and industrial centers. It was also a military objective of immense strategic importance for Hitler and his Nazi cutthroats as they unleashed a massive surprise attack on their totally unsuspecting Russian ally.
The ferocity, suddenness, and colossal scale of the German onslaught hit the hapless Soviets like a storm of shattering hammer blows. In less than a week’s time, well over half a million Russian soldiers had been wiped off the face of the earth, along with hundreds of planes, tanks, artillery pieces, trucks and mountains of ammunition and support equipment. Those Red Army units not annihilated or shipped back to Germany as slave labor, were in a stumbling retreat, mangled and exhausted. It was a calamitous rout. Leningrad soon was surrounded and expecting at any moment the coup-de-grace from Hitler’s seemingly invincible forces.
However, a full scale attack on the city failed to materialize. Reluctant to expend large numbers of badly needed troops to storm the sprawling metropolis by direct assault, Hitler ordered instead that Leningrad be blockaded and starved into submission. Faithful to their master, the German beasts held the Venice of the North under merciless siege for some 872 days.
A merciless beast in his own right, Stalin, in anticipation of the rapidly advancing panzer divisions, initially authorized an emergency evacuation of Leningrad’s civilians. Only a few train loads of women and children had departed Leningrad when he suddenly contravened his own orders and denied the city’s population further permission to flee. Stalin had ruthlessly calculated that Red Army troops would fight that much harder for a city which was still inhabited. “Not One Step Back!” became the official motto. Thousands of Leningrad’s citizens were pressed into service constructing barricades and digging revetments and anti-tank traps. Anyone, civilian and soldier alike, caught evading his duty, much less attempting to escape from Leningrad, was to be immediately shot – and more than a few were.
Once cut off and isolated by the Germans from all regular sources of resupply, with virtually no electricity or fuel, with practically no food or fresh water, and bereft of all but the most primitive of medical supplies, it was only a matter of weeks before conditions in the great city became appalling. As the weeks turned into months, life in Leningrad steadily degenerated into a living nightmare. The full scale of human suffering defies description. People commonly were driven to suicide, and many openly engaged in cannibalism. Each day hundreds of Leningraders, sometimes little better than walking skeletons, perished in unspeakable misery. Every week brought several thousand more deaths. Corpses piled up in the streets. It was medieval.
Mass starvation was the number one life-taker, but rampant epidemics of typhus and dysentery also claimed vast numbers of victims, along with those unlucky enough to be caught in the incessant German air-raids and artillery barrages. During the howling subzero winter months, countless others, severely malnourished, languishing in unheated flats, simply froze to death. Yet despite all these god-awful horrors, the will to resist could not be extinguished and the city miraculously clung to life for over 2 ½ agonizing years. When liberation eventually came, the final civilian death toll amounted to well over one million men, women and children.
Trapped there too was Shostakovich, in the city which had been his beloved home since birth. Enraged by the Germans' treachery, and shocked by the pitiless ease with which they committed atrocities as a routine matter, like their practice of pillaging Russian towns, butchering some civilians and leaving the rest to starve. Shostakovich wasted no time getting to a recruitment center and applying for enlistment. But he was rejected, ostensibly due to his extremely poor eyesight and rather frail physical constitution.
Not to be deterred, he opted for joining one of the local volunteer fire-brigades. But in reality the Kremlin could never allow him to become cannon fodder. He was regarded as too important a national asset. Indeed, Moscow fearful he might be killed, or even worse, captured, informed him that special arrangements had been made to have him spirited out of Leningrad and that he was to leave at once. But Shostakovich refused. He would not leave.
At any other time such brazen disobedience would have landed him in a Siberian prison camp, if not in front of a firing squad. Shostakovich was hardly an ardent communist, nor was he an heroic fool. Rather, his determination to stay grew out of his love of mother Russia and his deep sense of moral honor which would not allow him to abandon his lifelong home and his neighbors and countrymen now in their most desperate hour, perhaps their final one. The Germans seemed unstoppable, having already smashed and slaughtered their way across vast stretches of the Russian heartland. The prospects for preventing a Nazi victory looked bleak. But defeat was unthinkable as it would surely mean the fulfillment of Hitler’s vision: the enslavement and mass extermination of the Russian people.
So in the midst of the largest, deadliest, most horrific siege in the sorry annals of human warfare, Shostakovich marshaled his extraordinary musical talents and directed them towards the cause of victory, pouring his energies into composing a tribute to the city that nurtured his talent and a paean to Leningrad’s indomitable courage not just now in the face of the brutal German siege, but historically under the cruel legacy of many despotic regimes. It was to be a composition that would be a rallying call to all the Russian people. Energized with inspiration, its creation nevertheless required weeks of grim focus, every day of which the encircling Germans continued punishing the once enchanting Venice of the North with shellings and air-raids, ever tightening their murderous stranglehold.
When the symphony was completed, confident he had captured something powerful, Shostakovich at last relented and agreed to escape so that he might personally oversee a performance for the Kremlin. Upon hearing “The Leningrad Symphony”, as Shostakovich had nicknamed it, Stalin was exceedingly pleased and decreed that it be played constantly on the state radio, and that live performances be immediately arranged in towns and military bases across the USSR.
The score was smuggled to the West on microfilm, where performances met with equally enthusiastic acclaim, instantly connecting with audiences in Britain, the US and Canada. It made its North American premiere in New York City as a major national live radio performance conducted by the great Toscanini. (Although, ironically, Shostakovich hated Toscanini’s interpretation.) Countless other radio broadcasts ensued. Virtually overnight, “The Leningrad” became an inspirational theme of hope and a call for united defiance at a critical time when the rampaging might of Fascism appeared on the verge of conquering all of Europe, Asia, Northern Africa, and the western Pacific.
It always moves and amazes me how much influence composers and poets used to have on so many people.
Can we survive the loss of this influence?
posted by prowlerzee : 5:16 AM
To my mind, Shostakovich was the foremost composer of the 20th century, and the Seventh is among his most stunning and affecting works. Thanks so much for inspiring another experience of its magnificence!
My understanding of the circumstances of the composition and early performances of the Seventh differ somewhat from Mr. Dash's and are drawn primarily from Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered."
The Siege of Leningrad began after the Germans severed the last rail connection to the city on August 30 and the last land route on September 8. By this time, Shostakovich had already written much of the first movement.
When the Shostakovich family was evacuated to Moscow on October first (barely a month after the beginning of the Siege), the composer had the first three movements written. Upon landing in Moscow, Shostakovich took them to Aram Khachaturian and played them for him, saying, "Forgive me, if you will, if this reminds you of Ravel's 'Bolero.'"
Two weeks later, the family relocated to Kuibyshev, where the symphony was completed on December 27. It was first performed there by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra under Samuel Samosud on March 5,1942. Samosud conducted the Moscow premiere later that month.
However, the circumstances surrounding its Leningrad premiere were the most extraordinary. From Wilson's book:
"The performance of the symphony in besieged Leningrad on 13 August by the Radio Orchestra under Karl Eliasburg was an event of the greatest significance. The Leningrad Philharmonic had been evacuated to Novosibursk, and the Radio Orchestra was the only remaining ensemble in the city. A hungry and miserably cold winter under siege had reduced it to a mere fourteen players. Eliasburg summoned up all his energy to organize reinforcements; retired musicians were ferreted out, and soldiers with musical training were released from the army units defending Leningrad. Eliasburg himself, weak from hunger, fainted one day on the long walk home in the transportless city. To help restore his strength, the authorities provided the conductor with a bicycle, living quarters in the vicinity of the Philharmonic hall, a telephone and food supplies. Likewise, the orchestral musicians were issued extra rations.
"The creation of an enormous orchestra in these conditions seemed hardly credible. Their performance of the Seventh Symphony was a feat that inspired the imagination of the outside world. The playwright Alexander Kron summed up the Leningraders' reaction to the music: 'People who no longer knew how to shed tears of sorrow and misery now cried from sheer joy.'"