Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”
Moderato (poco allegro)
Allegro non troppo

There is great debate among musicologists regarding Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviets. Some interpret his music as railing against Soviet cruelty while others have compiled evidence to show that he was at least somewhat complicit in their activities. Much of Shostakovich’s music is ambiguous and can be heard as triumphal or subversive depending on who is doing the listening. Whether this was a coping mechanism or the result of his complex personality is all part of the ongoing discussion.

In the case of the Seventh Symphony, ambiguity was directly responsible for its wartime popularity. After its premiere on 5th March 1942 the Allies immediately realized its propaganda value and Toscanini, Koussevitsky and Stokowski raced to give its Western premiere.

A microfiche copy of the score was sent to Tehran, driven to Cairo and then flown to London so that Sir Henry Wood could give the premiere at the Proms on 29th June 1942. The score was then sent to the United States where Toscanini managed to edge out the others and give the first American performance on 19th July.

Critics almost unanimously disliked the music. Virgil Thomson wrote that the symphony, “seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” As is often the case, critical opinion was no match for public sentiment. The piece was heralded as a resounding success, a masterpiece and a perhaps most importantly, a symbol of the struggle for freedom against the forces of evil. At the time of the symphony’s American premiere, the United States was only 6 months into its battle with Japan. The government was actively promoting its alliance with Russia and edited out the more barbaric aspects of Stalin’s regime to support this goal.

In many ways, the Seventh Symphony was a gift for Western propagandists. Any questions about its artistic merit in an absolute sense were brushed aside in favour of the mythology of an artist single-handedly fighting the global forces of evil. The environment in which the piece was composed only served to further its appeal.

On 22nd June 1941, the Nazis invaded Russia and started what would become one of the most protracted and brutal military campagins in modern history. Although intent on capturing Moscow, the Germans knew that gaining control of Leningrad was an important first step. Shostakovich was teaching at the Conservatory and, caught up in the patriotic fervour sweeping the nation, tried twice to enlist in the Red Army. He was rejected both times due to his poor eyesight but was accepted by the Home Guard and made a fireman at the Conservatory. Work on the symphony was begun about a month after the initial invasion. Shostakovich, one of Russia’s cultural treasures., was offered an escape to the country in early August but refused it.

The German strategy was to encircle the city and starve its inhabitants to into submission. It was an exceptionally cruel plan and resulted in the deaths of a third of the city’s 3 million people.

After rapidly completing the first two movements, Shostakovich appeared on the radio saying, “An hour ago I finished the score of two movements of a large symphonic composition. If I succeed in carrying it off, if I manage to complete the third and fourth movements, then perhaps I’ll be able to call it my Seventh Symphony. Why am I telling you this? So that the radio listeners who are listening to me now will know that life in our city is proceeding normally.

Two weeks after the broadcast, Shostakovich completed the third movment and the next day, 30th September 1941, he was evacuated from the city with his family to a refugee camp 800 km to the east. Due to extremely cramped conditions and and practically non-existent rations, his first few months there were relatively unproductive. The last movement was written in 17 days and completed on 27th December. Shotstakovich was not one for dedicating his pieces, but marked this one, “to our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory over the enemy, and to my native city, Leningrad.

The first Russian performance was given on 5th March 1942 by the remaining members of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, who had also been evacuated to Kuybïshev. Several more performances were given throughout Russia the most famous of which was in Leningrad on 9th August 1942, the day that Hitler had decreed the city should fall.

Once again, the symphony proved to be an important piece of propaganda for the fight against fascism. The Leningrad Orchestra had already been evacuated, so the orchestra was cobbled together from the remaining members of the Radio Orchestra and any retired musicians that were still in the city. The piece required a larger orchestra than the beleaguered city could provide, so the call was put out to musicians serving at the front. The inclination to fight with guns rather than art was too strong and eventually some brass players had to be forcibly removed from the front to play the concert. Players were so weak from their near-starvation diet that the first rehearsal lasted just 15 minutes and extra rations had to be issued. The conductor, Karl Eliasberg fainted from exhaustion on his walk home. Only one copy of the 252-page score was available, so copyists worked day and night to create individual parts for the players.

On the day of the performance, the Russian army carried out a heavy offensive on the German artillery so that the concert would not be disturbed. It was broadcast via loudspeakers throughout the city with additional speakers being arranged to transmit the music over German lines.

Considering the nature of the orchestra and demands of Shostakovich’s score, it is quite likely that the performance was less than stellar. This was unimportant in the grand scheme of things however as the very idea of the concert proved to be a political rallying point for Russian citizens and Western sympathisers. Indeed, the symphony went on to be played no less than 62 times during the 1942-1943 American concert season.

Curiously, when the war was over and Russo-American relations soured, the symphony conveniently disappeared from concert programmes. Critics renewed their previously ignored assertions regarding the piece’s artistic merit and Shostakovich’s true political affiliation. In America in particular, it became quite fashionable to dismiss the piece as a bloated hymn to communism.

At nearly 85 minutes in length, the Seventh Symphony is the longest of the fifteen Shostakovich eventually completed. Musically, it is best known for the invasion theme, which occurs in the development section of the first movement. An 18-bar march tune begins quite jauntily and is accompanied by a repeated snare drum rhythm. The tune is repeated twelve times, with each repetition louder than the last in the manner of Ravel’s Boléro.

Once again, scholars have difficulty agreeing on what Shostakovich was trying to say. Some hear this theme as a clear representation of the encroaching fascist invaders while others think it illustrates Russia’s destruction from within. Even the source of the tune cannot be agreed upon. Suggestions include an operetta by Franz Lehár, said to be one of Hitler’s favorites; a clever distortion of Deutschland über alles, the German national anthem and Russian folk song.

Despite what opinion one holds regarding the piece and its multiple meanings, there is no denying that it played a major role in the war against totalitarian rule. The piece still resonates today, over 60 years after the fact. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev wrote of it, “The message is that hope prevails, that you cannot possibly destroy the human spirit. In the spirit of our own time, everyone has strength and a voice. People will resist and they will never allow anyone evil – those who represent evil forces – to have the biggest strength. We may all disagree about what it would take to make a perfect world, but these great works were composed to remind us that the tragedies of the past should not be repeated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *