I just read a passage so astonishing about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“The Leningrad Symphony”) that I must pass it along. It is about how the Soviets got a score for the newly written music to Leningrad during the siege. The quote is from the wonderful blog on music by Kaz. Earlier in his remarks about Shostakovich, he describes the difficulty of being a musician under the communist dictatorship. That is worth reading, too, especially in light of the long debate over whether comfort or discomfort enables greater art.
During the siege of Leningrad in 1941, Shostakovich found his chance for artistic redemption. It was a desperate time, with thousands perishing every day from starvation, disease and bombardment. Shostakovich worked as part of the night’s watch … diffusing bombs and putting out fires. In his rare moments of tranquility, he would compose music. There’s an old Russian saying that “When guns speak, the muses keep silent,” but Shostakovich defied it by writing his seventh symphony during this time, a monumental work more commonly known as the Leningrad Symphony. It’s a work of both historical as well as musical significance; the Soviet authorities went to great lengths to organize a performance of the symphony, seeing it as crucial to boosting the ailing morale of the people. A radio archive contains a fragment of an executive order given at that time: “By any means, get a score of the Seventh from Moscow. Transport it to Leningrad as soon as possible.” On June 2nd, 1942, a pilot flew a risky mission over Nazi lines to bring the manuscript of the symphony to the besieged city, where it was given to the conductor of the last remaining ensemble in town. There was a problem though: half his musicians were dead, the rest suffering from starvation, dystrophy and exhaustion. A list of living musicians in Leningrad was compiled and ordered to report for duty; they were provided extra rations to give them the strength to hold their instruments (a task they couldn’t manage at the first rehearsal), while a team of copyists worked tirelessly to prepare the parts for the musicians from the original score. When the performance finally took place on August 9th, 1942, German artillery positions were bombarded in advance to ensure the concert was uninterrupted. The concert hall was overflowing for the first time since the siege began, and the music broadcast live to millions of people; news of the performance was heard all around the world with a clear message: Hitler’s attack on Leningrad had failed. A playwright who attended the concert recalled: “People who no longer knew how to shed tears of sorrow and misery now cried from sheer joy.”
Here is a video of the Leningrad’s finale. I follow it with a more mellow work of his, the Piano Concerto No. 2. Kaz’s post also contains a video of Beyonce dancing to Shostakovich. O YouTube! O America!