The enigma of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony

A memorable concert took place 70 years ago. On August 9, 1942, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad”, was performed in the city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. At the time, the city had been besieged by German troops for more than a year and its inhabitants subjected to relentless starvation. Karl Eliasberg conducted an orchestra of 15 surviving musicians from his radio orchestra and other musicians who had been recalled from the front specifically for the occasion. The Leningrad Philharmonic, then under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky, had been evacuated to Novosibirsk, where its performance of the Seventh Symphony had already met with great success in July.

The symphony’s musical score was transported in a special aircraft that flew around the blockade to reach the besieged city. On the very day of the concert, the German army began an offensive that subjected the city to heavy bombardments. The Soviet Army in Leningrad allowed their anti-aircraft guns to remain silent for the duration of the concert.

“People came in small groups or individually. They hurried along the well-worn routes from the most remote parts of the city, widely avoiding places where notice boards warned: ‘Use the other side of the street. Danger of artillery shelling’. So they went to the other, safer side of the road and watched as plaster and cornices crumbled, as stone fell from the walls of the houses being shelled. They walked carefully, hearing the thunder from the front, and listening for detonations that perhaps signalled the approach of shelling to the street they were hurrying along to reach the concert in the great hall of columns”. [1]

Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, a composer friend of Shostakovich and a visitor to the concert, wrote two days later in the Leningradskaya Pravda newspaper that the concert was “stormy and passionate—like a ceremonial occasion, grand and solemn—as on a national holiday”. [2] It was said the music could also be heard in the trenches of the German soldiers.

Soon after its premiere, the “Leningrad” symphony began a triumphal march through concert halls all over the world and became Shostakovich’s most popular work. Apart from its reception in the cities of the Soviet Union, there were 60 performances in America alone, as well as in most major cities in eastern and western Europe. It was first performed in Berlin at the German State Opera under the direction of Sergiu Celibidache in the winter of 1946-47. It received an enthusiastic response from audiences everywhere. Music critics, musicians and conductors compared Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to Beethoven’s “Eroica”, declaring the composer to be a genius. His Seventh was generally identified with the struggle of the Soviet people against the forces of fascism.

The Seventh Symphony was rarely performed in the postwar period. In the Soviet Union, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural functionary, disparaged the work for lacking optimism. Shostakovich was accused of failing to counterpose to the violence of the Nazi invaders, depicted in the first movement, the power of the Red Army. In the West during the Cold War, Shostakovich’s works and particularly the “Leningrad” symphony were denounced and abandoned because they were regarded as music commissioned by Stalin.

This view remained unchallenged until 1979, when Shostakovich’s memoirs were posthumously published by Solomon Volkov, the young Soviet music critic who had emigrated to the United States after Shostakovich’s death in 1975. [3] The memoirs were based on minutes of meetings, authorised by the composer himself and revealing Shostakovich as an opponent of Stalin and the ruling Soviet bureaucracy. The memoirs were first violently attacked in the East and West and regarded as forgeries. Although it was known that Shostakovich had come into conflict with the ruling bureaucracy in 1936 and 1948, the bureaucracy had nevertheless used him as the preferred showpiece for Soviet music during the war and also later during the Cold War.

More here.

Shostakovich plays a fragment of his 7th symphony (1941)

After the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941, Shostakovich initially remained in Leningrad. He tried to enlist for the military but was turned away because of his poor eyesight. To compensate, Shostakovich became a volunteer for the Leningrad Conservatory’s firefighter brigade and delivered a radio broadcast to the Soviet people About this sound listen . The photograph for which he posed was published in newspapers throughout the country.[28]
But his greatest and most famous wartime contribution was the Seventh Symphony. The composer wrote the first three movements in Leningrad and completed the work in Kuibyshev (now Samara) where he and his family had been evacuated. Whether or not Shostakovich really conceived the idea of the symphony with the siege of Leningrad in mind, it was officially claimed as a representation of the people of Leningrad’s brave resistance to the German invaders and an authentic piece of patriotic art at a time when morale needed boosting. The symphony was first premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra in Kuibyshev and was soon performed abroad in London and the United States. However, the most compelling performance was the Leningrad premiere by the Radio Orchestra in the besieged city. The orchestra had only 14 musicians left, so the conductor Karl Eliasberg had to recruit anyone who could play a musical instrument to perform the symphony.[29] 


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