Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.
M.T. Anderson, author
99 Dover St., Somerville, MA 02144
9780763668181, $25.99, www.amazon.com
The work and life of seminal twentieth-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is intimately tethered to the jagged course of his country's political upheavals and war, from the twin revolutions of 1917, through the Great Terror of the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War, in this biographical account masterfully penned at a reading level accessible to young adults, and even astute middle schoolers.
M.T. Anderson, winner of the National Book Award for 2006's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party, traces how Shostakovich's career complexly progressed from his first piano suite, written at age fifteen, to international fame culminating in his seventh symphony, the Leningrad Symphony.
It was completed in December, 1941 after he and his family had fled to Kuibyshev, Russia, 1,800 miles southeast of his hometown of Leningrad. Leningrad, at various points in the composer's lifetime was also called St. Petersburg and Petrograd. Since 1991, it has again been St. Petersburg.
Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to the city of Leningrad, which from September, 1941 to 1944 was blockaded and starved by the German Army, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1 million residents. Many of those who survived did so by resorting to cannibalism. The symphony's US premiere in July, 1942 raised international awareness of the dire situation, but it was the August, 1942 premier in Leningrad, by the few remaining members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra that had not succumbed to starvation, that became legendary.
When it was suggested that the work be performed in Leningrad, conductor Karl Eliasburg resolutely brought together the few weak, emaciated instrumentalists that remained. Some of them died of starvation during rehearsals, before the performance could be held.
"There was no one left in Leningrad to play the Leningrad Symphony," Anderson hauntingly writes. "It had always been a city of music, but it had fallen silent. Its best known orchestras had fled before the Germans ringed the city. Only the Leningrad Radio Orchestra remained, and it had shut down in mid-winter. Their last live broadcast had been on New Year's Day, 1942. They'd played excerpts from an opera called The Snow Maiden. Later that night, the opera's tenor had died of hunger. The final note in the orchestral logbook reads: 'Rehearsals did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working.' It went into hibernation as the city starved."
Drawing on diaries, letters, recorded interviews and a wealth of other sources, in addition to surviving archival materials specifically by and about Shostakovich, Anderson paints a vivid, horrifying picture of what happened in Leningrad--the full extent of which Shostakovich, on the run with his family, could mostly only imagine until the full details came out at the war's end.
In an engaging style that clips along and is infused with abundant detail that is not at all hard to follow, the author lays out the wartime history.
But Anderson goes much further, demonstrating a rich understanding of music, and an intense depth of research into how, when, and where Shostakovich worked. Via the juxtaposing of dates, we get a sense of which sections of the Leningrad Symphony Shostakovich was, for instance, working just before his family fled Leningrad by the skin of their teeth in October 1941.
"I kept working day and night. There were times when the anti-aircraft guns were in action and bombs were falling, but I kept working," Shostakovich later said. And which parts he completed later.
Anderson encourages readers to listen to the symphony's different sections, and to think about how the music may mirror what was happening around its writer as he scored it.
Debate continues into the present day about what messages Shostakovich may or may not have purposely embedded into his music. In trying to explain this, Anderson takes on a teacher's voice.
"It is worth pausing for a moment and asking how music speaks ideas," Anderson writes about 100 pages into the 464-page book. He goes on for the next four pages to elucidate on how composers sometimes use not just actual language in the form of things like lyrical choruses, but also changes in key signatures, changes in musical style or speed, and even encoded messages in the form of things like snippets of familiar and not-so-familiar tunes, to get a point across.
The author cautions that trying to interpret what an artist is trying to say in their work is a risky endeavor, particularly in this twentieth-century era of gross lies and deceptions. Anderson makes it clear that the historical record is not always clear.
Shostakovich's life is one of deep contradiction. Was he a supporter of Stalin's regime or a dissenter? How did he imbed his views into his music--if he did at all? Were the things he said about his work in recorded interviews and in articles and even "memoirs" published internationally actually his views and interpretations--or someone else's? The short answer--maybe both. In this inexplicably volatile era, bending to the iron will of political leaders, including saying what Stalin wanted him to say--may have been the only way to keep his family alive. There's evidence that not everything actually said to have been written and said by the composer about his work--was.
"Except we don't know if Shostakovich actually meant what he said in this article," Anderson writes. "We don't even know if it was by him. Especially later in his life, the regime would send Shostakovich articles already written and tell him just to sign his name at the bottom."
Anderson walks readers through how twentieth-century Russian musicians like Shostakovich but also writers and other kinds of artists worked in a political explosive environment that at one moment celebrated them, and at the next moment could turn on them unexpectedly, denouncing them for work that didn't bend to the momentary political whims of murderous leaders like Joseph Stalin.
During the Great Terror of the 1930s, after years of his work being celebrated, Shostakovich's work was suddenly condemned as too formalist. He suddenly feared for his life. Other artists deemed similarly in the wrong disappeared around him.
What did it mean that Shostakovich's work was too formalist? Anderson attempts to get to the bottom of that, ultimately with no good answer.
"What was this formalism? It literally means music, art or writing that pays more attention to form and technique than to content," Anderson writes. "This definition seems vague and confusing, but perhaps that was the point. No one knew what it meant, any more than they knew exactly what its opposite, Socialist Realism, meant. They could mean anything." "Decades later, shortly before Stalin died, someone supposedly asked him what formalism and Socialist Realism actually were. He shrugged and replied 'The Devil alone knows.'"
Symphony for the City of the Dead horrifies and inspires as it teaches in a wonderfully accessible way about complicated twentieth-century music history that can seem as murky and twisted as the political eras it wraps around. M.T. Anderson, an extraordinarily skilled writer, indelibly succeeds in making understandable and engaging, events that defy comprehension.