The ultimate sound of defiance

Composed in a city under siege, smuggled through enemy lines and blasted forcefully via loudspeakers at the surrounding Nazi forces, the story of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony has become a parable of human endurance amidst one of the 20th century’s darkest horrors. This is music literally from the front line, and with its huge orchestra and bold musical imagery, it still speaks with an unparalleled directness. Written and first performed as the Nazi invasion of Russia had brought Hitler’s hordes to the gates of Leningrad, the symphony still echoes with the pounding rhythms of war.

‘I couldn’t not write it’, Shostakovich remarked of it: ‘War was all around’.

The mammoth work runs for over 78 minutes (the first movement alone lasts nearly half an hour) and as if to reflect its behemoth-like stature, Shostakovich asks for an equally gargantuan orchestra including eight horns, six trombones, two harps, a piano, three side drums and a full complement of other percussion instruments.

The Seventh’s story is one of the most astonishing in the history of music. The first full performance in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was given in August 1942 by a half-starved orchestra, whose emaciated state was symbolised by the drummer Dzaudhat Aydarov, who had literally been rescued from the dead. Aydarov was thought already to be a corpse, but the desperate conductor, Karl Eliasberg, went to the morgue to make sure – and discovered this supposed cadaver moving and breathing. Aydarov took arguably the most demanding role in the symphony, playing the side drum that beats the relentless rhythm of war at the heart of the first movement.

That a composer could write a symphony of this scope, ambition and integrity whilst a city was being bombed and starved was interpreted by listeners as proof that the Nazis would not indeed could not, win in Russia.

The lowest estimate for the number of Soviet people murdered for political reasons between 1928 and 1941 is 7.9 million. Some people claim that Stalin was responsible for as many as three times that number of deaths. The chilling reality is in fact, that nobody will ever know. Stalin’s grip on power was sustained by the fact that nobody dared speak their mind – not even to their wives, brothers or sisters. It was a silence comprised of terror, oppression and loneliness. The fear that surrounded everyone is almost impossible to imagine. Shostakovich would occasionally sleep in his hallway so that when, if the secret police arrived, it would not upset his family. Living with that ‘when’ is as inconceivable as the impossibility of expressing grief. Anyone publicly seen or overheard to be unhappy was simply removed from society.

This all changed on 22nd June 1941 when the Nazi war machine invaded. Shostakovich’s disputed but believable memoirs explain how, when the war came, people were united by a common sorrow, how they began to express their grief publicly and how spiritual life, which had almost been destroyed prior to the war, woke to new life.

Shostakovich was finally able to express in music the suffering he was experiencing. Of course he loathed Hitler, but the Austrian dictator’s invasion allowed a smokescreen for the real focus of his anger and pain. The memoirs show that the Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and was not merely a reaction to Hitler’s aggression.

Shostakovich claimed that all forms of fascism were abhorrent to him and that Stalin was just as much a criminal as Hitler. The terrible pre-war years were not forgotten. ‘Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.’

The composer’s immediate reaction to the war was to try and enlist in the Red Army. His poor eyesight meant that he was only suitable to be an auxiliary fireman. Fortunately, this job allowed him to compose his Seventh Symphony.

He wrote frantically, finishing the enormous first movement in less than six weeks. Resisting pressure to be evacuated, he continued work, beginning the second movement on 4th September. The same day, the German armies surrounded the city and the siege of Leningrad began. It was to last 900 days. Nearly a million people, one-third of the city, starved to death. People soon had to eat their pets. Eventually, stories of cannibalism emerged – even within families.

Shostakovich wrote on, finishing the second and third movements in under three weeks. By now, it was common knowledge among Russians that their greatest living composer was writing a symphony in support of their heroic resistance. The importance of this morale-boosting knowledge was well understood by the Soviet authorities, who finally managed to persuade the reluctant composer to be evacuated. The final movement was completed in the relatively secure town of Kuibyshev. The whole work had taken less than six months to write.

Its early performances were huge symbols of patriotism and their propaganda effect was quickly realized by the Allies. The score was microfilmed and smuggled to Tehran, from where it was sent by US Naval ship to America. On 19th July 1942, Toscanini conducted a performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra that was heard live by 20 million people. In the following year alone it received 62 further performances in America. The composer’s picture even made it onto the front cover of Time magazine.

The most extraordinary performance of all, of course, was the one that took place in Leningrad itself. With the city still under siege, only 14 members of the Radio Orchestra were still alive and yet they decided to mount a performance of this monumental work. Posters were put up ordering every available musician to turn up for rehearsals. When this didn’t produce enough players, any soldier who could play an instrument was ordered back from the front line to join the orchestra. Such importance was attached to this symbol of resistance that the players were even given extra rations.

For the performance itself, the army arranged a diversion to silence the enemy guns. The concert was broadcast live on the radio and all those who heard it were inspired to continue their defiance of the Nazis. Even a German General who sat in his trenches listening to the performance later remarked: ‘When it finished, I realised that never ever shall we be able to enter Leningrad. It is not a city that can be conquered.’

The first movement immediately sets up the conflict that will remain ever present throughout the symphony, the original title being simply “War.” The strength, freedom and individuality of the strings, representing the Soviet people, pitted against the brutal, machine-like rhythms of the trumpets and timpani – their enemies. A flute solo invites us into a dreamlike atmosphere of total serenity, peace and calm. It is a wistful and nostalgic world, the flute’s melody is taken over by solo violin at 5.47, painting imagery of golden-haired children playing happily in the fields – a soon-to-be-lost world that is due to be shattered and swept away by the menacing approach of German forces.

The “invasion theme” begins at 6.13 – the sound of the distant Nazi war machine barely audible to begin with but becoming ever louder and more belligerent as the movement progresses. From a technical perspective, this is actually a 22-bar ostinato similar in technique to Ravel’s Bolero but altogether different in character. This “march” is actually a pastiche of “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim,” from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow for its latter half and a theme from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work for which the composer suffered his first official denunciation in 1936. The prominent sequence of six descending notes in the seventh bar, derived from Lehár, has been considered by musicologist Ian McDonald to resemble the third bar of the Deutschlandlied – a not so cryptic taunt aimed at the invading enemy.

The march and battle that ensue are unrelenting. In what must be one of the most extraordinary fifteen minutes of symphonic music ever written, Shostakovich piles up agony upon agony upon agony. Resembling waves of all-conquering Panzer tanks, the march builds and builds, becoming ever more frantic and foreboding – you can sense the sheer panic on the streets of the encircled city, raucous exchanges between the brass instruments indicating danger sirens.

Just when you think it has to end, another onslaught envelops you. He wanted it to be repetitive and painful, but that of course is nothing compared to the realities suffered by people under tyranny.

There were very few tombstones in the Soviet Union. The deaths were often denied. For many people, it became crucial at least to find the bodies of their lost ones. That was the only way they could try and come to terms with their atrocious losses. A bassoon solo seems to describe a mother searching for her dead son on the battlefield. The accompanying footsteps are hesitating, but the purposeful melody is determined. The body is found and the horns and tuba are able to intone what might be a short ‘Requiem aeternam’. This single bar occurs three times. The first two invoke very distant memories of the world of the opening, but the final one reminds us that there are still battles to be fought. The danger is ever present.

Shostakovich titled the second movement ‘Reminiscence.’ These are desperately sad memories which seem to contemplate all that has been lost. It’s the struggle to carry on after all that has passed. The central section is an anger of bitterness. Bitter that the only dancing that occurs now is a forced and unnatural one. The emptiness that follows is perfectly orchestrated. The harps, making their first appearance after at least half an hour, attempt to console. But the rhythms of the flutes are unaffected and the bass clarinet is left to sing the melody bleakly, staring out into the nihilistic future. Only the alto flute at the very end gives some cause for hope. For many people, hope was all they had.

In the Adagio, the battle lines are again clearly drawn. The implacable winds, fortissimo and accented, are contrasted against the flexible strings, only forte and warm. The original title for this movement was “Home Expanses.” There is a terrible story of a nine-year-old girl who was sent to labour camp for twenty years because she was overheard singing a western song. The poignant, semplice flute solo suggests that loneliness of silence. Of not being allowed to sing. It stirs up great anger, of course, which explodes in the movement’s central section. Unlike the previous movement’s bitterness, this anger is one of passion. It is passion that ultimately has the greater success. It is followed by the entire viola section singing espressivo the flautist’s earlier private tune. It feels as though Shostakovich is saying that “if we stick together, we can survive.” If we all sing, we can’t be beaten. The victory will be ours and the triumph of that is the entire string section playing the opening music of the movement. What had been cold, unrelenting and inhuman is now invested with every ounce of human joy. It is the emotional climax of the work.

The battles that were always likely to return, do so in the finale. But the third movement has taught people of the way to survive and it is their unrelenting spirit which leads the symphony out of its long tunnel and into the light. Many people wonder whether this piece is optimistic or pessimistic. Just at the very end, when the opening theme is blazingly intoned by the whole orchestra in a triumphant C major, the side drum returns. It reminds us that however well we might be able to conquer tyranny, evil will always be there, lurking in the background. The optimism is that it can be resisted but the realism is that it will always be with us. A fairly dispiriting thought, you might say.

Music’s innate ability to be ambiguous is one of its greatest strengths and for Shostakovich it saved his life. He could express his beliefs that one day Stalin would be overthrown, that humanity could defeat tyranny, and he could survive in doing so.

By substituting one tyrant for another, he could compose a masterpiece which was able to be performed to millions of people in his lifetime without betraying his conscience. This piece is not about Hitler. It is not even really about Stalin. What makes the Leningrad timeless is its constant relevance. The tragedy of this piece is that there will always be tyrants, there will always be suffering. What the piece offers is the hope that despite this inescapable fact, the human spirit will never be broken. Evil will always be present, but so will humanity’s constant ability to be able to resist it. Amen to that.