Friday, November 11, 2016

Symphony For The City of the Dead - Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Symphony For The City of the Dead by MT Anderson is the kind of book I wish
I'd written. I know the city and I know the subject matter and I know the symphony and if I'd gotten off my arse and gone and done the research I probably could have produced a book about half as good as this one. It's the story of course of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. This was Shostakovich's seventh symphony and his opus #60. It was begun before World War 2 but only finally completed during the extraordinary circumstances of the siege of Leningrad after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht's Army Group north pushed right to the edges of the Leningrad (known before and now as St Petersburg) and surrounded it to the south and east while the Nazis' Finnish allies surrounded it to the North. For 900 days the city was completely surrounded and attacked mercilessly. While the city was being bombarded by heavy artillery and bombed relentlessly by the Luftwaffe the greatest Russian composer of the twentieth century Dmitri Shostakovich was working on his masterpiece (one of his masterpieces anyway) in cellars and bomb shelters and occasionally in music rooms and rehearsal spaces. Eventually evacuated first to Moscow and then a safe-ish city on the Volga Shostakovich finished his symphony in early 1942 where it took on a new life as a propaganda piece that toured the world raising awareness of Russia's war effort. 
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MT Anderson unpacks all of this and provides the context for Shostakovich's life and career and explains how his music fitted in or rather didn't fit in to the expectations of the New Order established by the Soviet Union. I was particularly moved by the sections of the book dealing with Stalin's terror. So many of Shostakovich's friends, acquaintances, fellow artists and musicians were randomly dragged off the streets and murdered by Stalin that it's amazing he didn't go mad or kill himself. He almost did go mad when a review written by Stalin himself in Pravda accused him of bourgeois tendencies. Immediately he was made a persona non grata and all the professional music bodies in Russia denounced him. Perhaps he eventually would have been killed by Stalin's NKVD had not war intervened. 
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You can get Symphony For The City of the Dead at all good bookshops and you can listen to Shostakovich's 7th Symphony here