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Anderson, M. T.: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.

Anderson, M. T.

Symphony for the City of the Dead:

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege

of Leningrad

Candlewick Press, 2017, pp464, 9.99 [pounds sterling]

978 0 7636 9100 4

A book initially published in the USA in 2015 where School Library Journal assessed it as 'This ambitious and gripping work is narrative nonfiction at its best' and that is spot on! The first 130 pages are a brief but brilliantly informative biography of the composer Shostakovich whose home was in Leningrad. His life has been subjected to Stalinist state misinformation as well as fraudulent speculative claims both of which sources are exposed and queried. The approach here is to brilliantly cut through complex issues without diverting from facts and truth.

The book then continues through revealing Russian mistakes in dealings with Hitler prior to the invasion and the start of the appalling siege of Leningrad on 22 June 1941, it continued for 872 days. Dimitri Shostakovich volunteered as a rooftop fire-watcher which gave him clear views of the incendiary and explosive bombing descending on his city. In these night hours surrounded by immense destructive forces he began the creation of what became his 7th Symphony*. The composer's own circumstances, the progress of composition and further developments in the siege are then interrelated with the writing, sparing none of the horrors of starvation and deprivation of the citizens. Away from Leningrad the symphony was finished and performed, then copies of the score arrived by circuitous routes for performances in London and in America. Many found hearing music formed amidst such suffering movingly inspirational whilst Stalin hoped it would improve favourable relations for his Russia. Extraordinary events led to Shostakovich's 'Leningrad' Symphony almost miraculously being played, and broadcast, in the besieged city on 9 August 1942. This enterprise was fraught with problems with emaciated, out of practise, musicians (three died in the course of rehearsals) coping with a work needing stamina and huge resources. The concluding sections of the book deal with the aftermath for Russia, for the war and the final years of the composer who died in 1975.

This book is an amazing achievement, breathtaking in its range and scope: it is a work of scholarship, with detailed references and notes, and yet written in a form easily accessible. It has all the readability and compulsive page-turner qualities of a skilfully written thriller yet contains an immense amount of Russian, musical and military history. Stalin's murderous paranoia is exposed in all its inescapable terror of government by fear. Nazi military efficiency is chillingly portrayed too and yet it is the music, human creativity and artistic endeavour, which threads through everything and it is the music which still sounds and reaches out.

Chris Brown

* (Readers will almost inevitable want to get a flavour of the symphony. Ashkenazy, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Decca, 1997, is very fine and also has 54 secs of Shostakovich broadcasting in besieged Leningrad in 1941.)

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Author:Brown, Chris
Publication:School Librarian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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