Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played

The horrors of the Leningrad siege — the 900 Days of Harrison Salisbury’s classic — have been pretty well picked over by historians; and meanwhile the story of
Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the improbable circumstances of its composition and first Leningrad performance in August 1942, is well known from the extensive, and still growing, literature on the composer.
But Brian Moynahan’s book is the first to my knowledge — in English at least — to interweave these narratives to any significantly detailed extent. Moynahan is not a musician, and this is not really a book about music. It’s about an event which symbolises and personalises a history that, en gros, is virtually beyond our comprehension — those of us who live peaceful, well-fed, well-warmed, secure lives in a free society unmenaced by tanks on the one hand or secret police on the other.
The technique, if not the scale, is Tolstoyan. Moynahan’s narrative frame — his Borodino — is the German invasion itself, the first part of the siege, the atrocious Russian military failures leading up to the nightmare of the Volkhov pocket, and the barely credible stupidities of the NKVD, who routinely, under orders from Stalin and Beria, shot or imprisoned their own best officers and large numbers of other mostly loyal citizens, at a time when military expertise was in desperately short supply and loyalty under severe threat.
Meanwhile conditions in the city deteriorated to far below subsistence level. The population starved and froze. They were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, eventually even each other. With the outside temperature dropping to minus 35, they huddled in unheated rooms in whatever covering they could find. Corpses lined the streets as they lined the battlefield. It was, somebody remarked, like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad/St Petersburg, was in the city for the first few weeks of the siege, and by the time he was flown out in early October 1941 he had composed the bulk of three movements of his Seventh Symphony. He already saw it as a symbol of the city’s defiance, and in Moscow he told an interviewer: ‘In the finale, I want to describe a beautiful future time when the enemy will have been defeated.’ It had become a Leningrad Symphony in all but name. Its composer had been photographed on the roof of the Conservatoire in a fireman’s outfit hosing down a (non-existent) conflagration. Now, in his absence, Leningraders struggled to concerts played by emaciated, half-dead musicians in freezing halls. Music had become an emblem of that peculiar Russian ability, honed through centuries of repression and hardship and in the end disastrously underestimated by Hitler, to slow down their mental metabolism almost to a standstill and survive like aesthetically tuned cattle in conditions that would drive others to breakdown and insanity.
How else to explain the successful performance of the Seventh Symphony that following August? It was a full-blooded 70-minute work for an orchestra of more than 100, performed by a radio band reduced by death and infirmity to a mere handful of sickly regulars, augmented by military-band players from the battlefront and by whatever extra wind and string players could be drafted in from the city’s dilapidated musical substrata, and directed by a conductor — Karl Eliasberg — who could himself barely hold a baton or stand upright.
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