Shostakovich's Leningrad: The symphony that brought a city back to life

On the evening of Sunday August 9 1942, the German artillery guns that had been laying siege to Leningrad for a year were temporarily silenced by a Soviet barrage.

The timing was deliberate. Through loudspeakers that had been hastily rigged up across the city’s frontline, a strange sound could be heard, a classical concert being broadcast live.

It was the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, and it was being performed by a ragtag orchestra made up of musicians who were half dead from starvation. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, given that Hitler’s forces had encircled the city and were intent on starving the population to death.

The previous winter, when temperatures had dropped to -31F (-35C), people had eaten soup made from boiled leather belts, that and “siege meat” which included not only cats and dogs but also human flesh taken from corpses lying frozen in the streets.

The siege would continue for another two years and would claim the lives of close to a million civilians. But after the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.

Never before had a piece of music become such a powerful symbol of resistance, such an effective tool of psychological warfare. Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler, a new BBC documentary, tells the story of that historic concert through archive footage and first-hand testimony.

One eyewitness recalls that spectators were moved to tears when the musicians arrived for the performance in their shabby concert clothes, skeletal figures in dinner jackets and gowns. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere even took place.

As no films, photographs or recordings of the concert exist, the filmmakers asked the conductor Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitri Shostakovich’s son, to conduct a special performance of The Leningrad by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in the exact location where the original concert took place — the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall.

The 77-year-old conductor had travelled to London from his home in St Petersburg for a screening of the documentary. When asked what it felt like to conduct The Leningrad at the place where his father had written it during the siege, he says: “Whenever I perform my father’s music it is like hearing his voice. I had a feeling that he was standing right beside me. I was nervous about making mistakes, getting the emotions wrong.”

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