St. Petersburg 74 years ago: Leningrad, as the Russian city at the Baltic Sea was called at the time, lies in ruins. Over the winter of 1941/42 thousands have died – starved or frozen to death, killed by the relentless attacks of the German air force and artillery. Under those dramatic circumstances, the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich composed his famous 7th symphony, the “Leningrad” Symphony. Shostakovich was evacuated from Leningrad shortly before completing the symphony, but on August 9, 1942 the work was performed in Leningrad by a makeshift orchestra: the survivors of the Leningrad Radio-Orchestra assisted by military musicians and led by the conductor Karl Eliasberg.
Message against all violence?
Few other works have provoked so many and so passionately different interpretations. Let’s hear first, what the composer has to say. “I dedicate my 7th symphony to our battle against fascism, to our certain victory over the enemy and to my home town Leningrad”, Shostakovich wrote in March 1942. A patriotic-heroic hymn then.
Sure enough, in his patriotic fervor Shostakovich became part of the Soviet propaganda machine, and the supreme effort of Eliasberg to perform the work in a town that bore no resemblance to what it looked like before war, was partly motivated to strengthen the spirit of resistance of the Soviet citizen. The performance was broadcasted all over the Soviet Union and portrayed as a heroic deed of all who were involved.
However, as much as Shostakovich abhorred the brutality of the German attack, he was certainly not blind to the brutality of Stalin’s regime either. And while Soviet officials showcased the “Leningrad” Symphony as a symbol for the USSR’s victorious resistance against Germany, the work can be interpreted as a symbol against any totalitarian system, as a symbol for the absurdity of brute force and militarism.
A brutal invasion theme
The 7th symphony was initially conceived as a single-movement poem, but after war had broken out, it rapidly grew in size. The first movement has two themes. The first one illustrates peace time. It is quickly disturbed and distorted by a second one symbolizing the invasion. The latter one is repeated in eleven variations and gradually increases in volume like Ravel’s “Bolero”. It’s structure is brutally simple, one could even say stupid – a hint to the fact that stupidity and brutality often go together.
External peace, internal terror
The second movement starts with a melancholic melody, but half way through the movement, a strident clarinet, joined soon after by the brass, interfere and pave the way for a more violent theme similar to a military march until the initial theme concludes the movement. Shostakovich said himself, that while he wrote the second movement, he had no specific images in mind.
But as a Soviet citizen, he was not free to express what he really thought or felt when it meant criticizing the regime. The way the movement is written, reminds me of the fact that the Soviet Union was not really at peace before the war broke out. Shostakovich was aware of the internal repression and of Stalin’s paranoia that indirectly led to the Leningrad tragedy. Up to 1941, many competent army officers had been executed or sent to labor camps, and the Red Army initially was too weak to stop the German invasion and to break the siege of Leningrad.
Memories, pain, sorrow, anger
The third movement starts like the second movement with a gentle choral played by the woods and the harp and echoed by the strings. It might reflect the idea that God was for many in Leningrad a source of consolation. Actually, during war Soviet officials acknowledged the role of the Orthodox-Russian faith in strengthening the spirit of the nation.
Another theme, rather melancholic, reflecting Shostakovich memories of his home country, sets in after the first third of the movement and evolves into a more forceful melody with martial percussion, that can be interpreted as defiance against the German attack, the wish to resist and ultimately strike back. The movement concludes on a sad note, expressing the incredible loss of human lives during the siege – a national tragedy.
A dampened and distorted triumph
The finale begins with a calmly expectant melody, performed by the strings and countered by the woods, the music than builds up momentum and reaches a climax with a prominent intervention of military drums and elements of a triumphant march. It is followed by a Baroque dance – a sarabande – often used to express sorrow, which counterbalances the main theme illustrating victory.
Yes, in the end the Soviet Army was victorious over the German armies. But the siege of Leningrad ended only in 1944, 872 days after it began, and the Soviet Union lost around 27 million soldiers and civilians during World War II. An expensive victory, reflected by the end of the fourth movement, a triumph march yes, but dampened and distorted, that leaves the audience in limbo, the tension between joy and sorrow remaining unresolved.
An unwieldy work
It took me a long time to appreciate this symphony. I had to listen to it several times and to read up a lot, to unearth its different elements and understand their meanings. The recording I have has been made by the WDR Symphonie-Orchster Köln conducted by Semyon Bychkov. And if you are interested in a really good novel taking up the dramatic episode in the history of Leningrad, I recommend Sarah Quigley’s book “The Conductor” portraying the life of Eliasberg and the atmosphere in the besieged town.
© Charles Thibo