Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad/St Petersburg, was in the city for the first few weeks of the siege, and by the time he was flown out in early October 1941 he had composed the bulk of three movements of his Seventh Symphony. He already saw it as a symbol of the city’s defiance, and in Moscow he told an interviewer: ‘In the finale, I want to describe a beautiful future time when the enemy will have been defeated.’
It had become a Leningrad Symphony in all but name. Its composer had been photographed on the roof of the Conservatoire in a fireman’s outfit hosing down a (non-existent) conflagration. Now, in his absence, Leningraders struggled to concerts played by emaciated, half-dead musicians in freezing halls. Music had become an emblem of that peculiar Russian ability, honed through centuries of repression and hardship and in the end disastrously underestimated by Hitler, to slow down their mental metabolism almost to a standstill and survive like aesthetically tuned cattle in conditions that would drive others to breakdown and insanity.
How else to explain the successful performance of the Seventh Symphony that following August? It was a full-blooded 70-minute work for an orchestra of more than 100, performed by a radio band reduced by death and infirmity to a mere handful of sickly regulars, augmented by military-band players from the battlefront and by whatever extra wind and string players could be drafted in from the city’s dilapidated musical substrata, and directed by a conductor — Karl Eliasberg — who could himself barely hold a baton or stand upright.
Gavin Plumley discusses the piece with Semyon Bychkov, a conductor born in Leningrad shortly after the siege who is now conducting the symphony:
The first image that comes to Bychkov’s mind while preparing is that of his mother, as a giddy school leaver on 22 June 1941, 11 years before he was born. “Throughout the country, graduation balls are taking place for those finishing high school. It’s a big celebration. In Leningrad, it’s the White Nights,” he says, referring to northern Russia’s famed twilit season, “so the city is bursting with young people, by the river, partying, celebrating. Some are dreaming of university or going to the conservatoire. The future is very beautiful and very mysterious.” It’s a scene described, in effect, in the lusty opening bars of the symphony. “That first stride has a real sense of energy and optimism,” Bychkov notes, “and when the second theme comes, it’s a dream put into sound.”
Update from a reader:
The documentary Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow features the story of the Leningrad symphony (available thanks to Youtube, from 19:49 to about 22:14). It also contains absolutely staggering and heartbreaking footage (at 20:48) of a repeat performance held 25 years after the premiere, held in the same concert hall, with the same musicians and the same original audience members, each sitting in their original spot. The hall is almost empty, as nearly all the original attendees have since died – many of them, undoubtedly, among the million or two Leningraders who died during the siege.
(Video: Shostakovich plays a fragment of his Seventh Symphony in 1941)