War & Music
Buying Tickets: A soldier purchases tickets for Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in Leningrad
in August 1942. The symphony premiered with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in Kuybïshev
(now Samara) in March 1942; and then in Leningrad, the besieged city, with the Radio Orchestra,
five months later under the baton of Karl Eliasberg.
Source: The Spectator
In a review article in The Spectator of Brian Moynahan's Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, Stephen Walsh brings to light a now-forgotten history of how one of Russia's and one of world's greatest modern composers, Dmitri Shostakovich did the miraculous, composing a great symphony and putting on a concert in the midst of the 900-day German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.
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.Insanity might be the rational choice of words to describe such an undertaking; or it just might be the courage of convictions, the essential understanding, that music is one of the few means of survival under brutal conditions. That music brings both a sense of normalcy and beauty into a barbaric world. There are stories of men playing music in Nazi concentration camps. Such explains why totalitarian regimes go to extreme lengths to ban music; it's too human.
You can read the rest of the article at [Spectator].