Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played

Brian Moynahan's Leningrad: Siege and Symphony brings together the story of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony and that of the siege of Leningrad to inspiring, heartbreaking effect

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony Brian Moynahan

Quercus, pp.558, £25, ISBN: 9780857383006

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.

Much of this has been described before. But Moynahan’s account is by far the fullest and most compelling I’ve read. He has drawn not only on the extensive English-language literature, but on recently published Russian memoirs and diaries, augmented, according to a somewhat sketchy afterword, by interviews and conversations with blockade survivors, and a certain amount (how much is unclear) of archival rummaging. The terrible beauty of the book is in its anecdotal detail, and the horror is of a kind that makes you weep but at times approaches comedy. There’s the boy who goes with a well-dressed man to his apartment to buy a pair of boots, only to be greeted with the sight of human body parts hanging like meat on hooks, and the man announcing ‘I’ve brought a live one.’ There’s the girl who goes to get her oboe repaired, and when she tries to pay with money, is told ‘Bring me a little cat.’

The battle descriptions are of course atrocious, but the street scenes perhaps horrify more, because soldiers expect to suffer and die, while people going about their daily chores are simply us in another time and another country. For musicians, similarly, Moynahan’s account of the preparations for the symphony performance will ring bells that soon crack. At first the players are barely able to hold their instruments, the wind-players incapable of blowing or even forming their mouths into an embouchure.

Gradually, under Eliasberg’s unwavering moral pressure, they manage to rehearse for short stretches. Now and then a player will simply fall over; or someone will fail to turn up to rehearsal, for the one simple, irreversible reason. The musicians begin to resent the whole process. When one player is late because, he says, he has been burying his wife, Eliasberg snaps: ‘Make sure it’s the last time!’ Yet eventually, at the final rehearsal, it all suddenly comes together, and the performance is an incredible triumph, greeted by a packed Philharmonie with a standing ovation that begins even before the end of the work, as the players falter and the audience urges them on.

The Seventh is hardly one of Shostakovich’s best works. Its crudities, whether or not deliberate, weigh it down; the quality of its material is, to say the least, uneven. But these are effete judgments, made amid the luxury of civilised choice. For Leningraders, and especially those who lived through the blockade (and who still rightly enjoy free transport and other concessions in the city), it remains an icon of their survival, not only of the Nazi onslaught, but also of the mindless, self-defeating Stalinist purges.

This is the meaning of its yearly anniversary performances in the same hall. Brian Moynahan may or may not be right that its Leningrad première (the first performance had been in Kuibyshev five months earlier) was the most moving moment in the history of music. It’s certainly hard to imagine reading his gripping, skilfully woven account without emotion.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • stevemeikle

    Some of us do not view the Leningrad Symphony as “crude” or even as “uneven.” But then I am a Russophile fascinated by Russian history and culture

    • vvputout

      Even if it is, that suits the occasion.

  • Doubtless the defiant act of performing the symphony during such a brutal siege trumps the musical defects of the symphony itself. Years later, after listening to the NBC recording of the American premiere, Arturo Toscanini is alleged to have asked, “Did I really learn and record this junk?”

  • Jim Wood

    Admittedly, the first and forth movements are agitprop, and the second fairly forgettable. But the third ranks among the best music that Shostakovich ever wrote.

  • Adam

    Didn’t he start it before the war as an attack on the Soviet degradation of st Petersburg into Leningrad?

    It then became about the Nazi siege also but retains that double meaning against all totalitarianism.

    • Oscarthe4th

      I’m not up on the latest scholarship on Shostakovitich and the politics of survival. It is certainly possible. I would be a bit surprised if the change of the city’s name was a major target of his ire, but over time it may have come to symbolize the descent into ever-more-terrible tyranny
      Also, it’s hard to know what artists were thinking at the time they are creating anything, particularly if the evidence comes through recollections back over the decades.
      As you note, by the time he completed it the primary focus is very much on the people of Leningrad and their resistance to invasion.
      Leningraders are idealized in the first and fourth movements (hence the movie music flourishes that many dislike) and explored more personally and grittily in the second and third movements. The performance, both symbol and substance of the unwillingness to surrender, makes it their own–and rightly so.

      • Isabella Adamowicz

        You are really out of your depth here. What’s in a name? you have no idea about the Stalin’s terror that decimated the city. Do you know that all gentry , people connected with the old regime pre revolutionary ere ether shot or made to lieve the city in 24 hours and were sent in to exile?And that is even before Kirov’s murder, which gave pretext for Stalin to arest thousand and thousand as so called “enemy of the people”, not only men, but wives of the “enemies were arrested for nor informing that their husbands were enemies, hundreds of thousand children were sent to children’s , homes , those who survived came back from Sibiria 20 years later,, yes that what the wives were given for not informing on their husbands.The level of ignorance is astounding, but even that can be forgiven, what is unforgivable is trying to comment on things you have no idea about.

        • Oscarthe4th

          What I know is his music, which I love. I also know full well the horrors of Stalin–or at least as well as someone who has not experienced them can know them. Nor am I ignorant of the ways that Stalin’s tyranny enveloped Shostakovich. There is no greater evocation in music of the Terror than the slow movement of his 5th symphony. (I once heard the music used as background for a reading of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem.” Utterly appropriate and piercing to the bone) That he had the motive to use his music to protest Stalin is clear.

          There were two things I did not know. The first, as I said, was that I did not know when Shostakovich began composing the 7th symphony. I was hoping that Adam or someone else would expand upon his original statement; thank you for doing that.

          The second was when or whether his justifiable rage and fear were focused not simply on Stalin but on the Communist regime beginning with Lenin. While many people caught up in the Terror blamed Communism as a whole, some distinguished between Lenin and Stalin, seeing Stalin as having betrayed the ideals of Lenin and Communism.

          I don’t know which was true of Shostakovich in 1939 (as opposed to later). If the latter, then the change in name may well have bothered him less than the many far more serious crimes that you summarize. If the former, then the change in name would have been a clear step to him in the subjugation of the city he loved.

          • Isabella Adamowicz

            Ideals of communism, please tell what those ideals are? The terror started with Lenin. It was he, who ordered hostage takings among the intelligensia and bourgeoisie, closed all the papers of the opposition , closed the parlament, during the February revolution after the Tsar was arrested, and head of the government was Kerenski, Constituonal Democrat, Parlament had many deputies from many parties, Bolshevicks included., bolshevicks had just 2 or 3 votes. Well they didn’t liked it. They made a coup d’etat,
            arrested all deputies from the rival parties and became dictators. Shot all the Tsar ministers, bureaucrates

            , clergy, owners of busnesses, editors of newspapers, jurnalists, anyone associated with the old regime, most were shot , families were thrown out of their houses and apartments, totally destitute. Do you know , that children of former aristocrates and wealthy peopl had no civil rights in Lenin’s Russia, had no right to seek higher .education? In every document you had to state what was your parents occupation was before the revolution. Really, in this day and age, when the information at your fingertips literally, withot need even to go to the library, very strange to hear about the ideals of communism. By the way, even Wiki tells, that first part of the 7 symphony was written in the late 30s. And it is very bizzare for me to read that the change of name from Sr-Peterbourg to Leningrad would have so affected Shostakovich, that he was inspired to write the that symphony. LOL! Look at what upheavals were behind the changing of the name.

  • David O’Riordan

    I think the first three movements of the Leningrad constitute his best work, the adagio being particularly astonishing.

  • David O’Riordan

    I think the first three movements of the Leningrad constitute his best work, the adagio being particularly astonishing.

  • mathias broucek

    It’s a complicated work to assess. For me that wonderful adagio more than makes up for some earlier crudity.
    Bur personally I forgive absolutely everything that goes before when I hear the finale’s glorious coda. I can’t improve on the the description a virtual friend used: “those almost hysterical string figurations and then – THAT MOMENT, as those snarling firebird fanfares rise, twice, against the tension, bursting for release…”

  • Nina

    the note about aesthetically tuned cattle is unbelievable

  • I wrote a film script about this story a few years back. Mouldering in a draw until today when I stumbled on it and started Googling it again. Good to see a proper writer has tackled the story. It is one of the greatest ever true stories!