Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Most Unusual Symphony

There is a new book out by Brian Moynahan titled Leningrad: Siege and Symphony reviewed in the Washington Post. As anyone who knows much about Dmitri Shostakovich will realize, it is about the composition of his Symphony No. 7, which was written under the most extreme circumstances possible. I complain about bad pop music blared out in public spaces and boom-box cars; but can you imagine Shostakovich trying to compose a symphony with the constant background of Nazi artillery? I have written about this music before, but it and the context surrounding it are so compelling, that I want to mention it again.

As the reviewer says:
The Siege of Leningrad, the pitiless epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement of the Soviet Union’s second city, is a story that has drawn many chroniclers — each with a special kind of bravery to attempt a fresh recounting. Brian Moynahan’s entry point is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the starving and brutalized city on Aug. 9, 1942, Day 335 of the siege and “perhaps the most magnificent, and certainly the most moving, moment ever to be found in music.”
According to the review, the book focuses more on the siege than the symphony. This was probably the most horrific siege of a city in history. Read the Wikipedia article for the details. The city was surrounded by thirty three divisions both Nazi and their Finnish allies (yes, the Finns, forced to choose between being massacred by the Russians or the Nazis in WWII, chose to ally with the Nazis). The number of casualties were almost beyond belief: there were a million civilian casualties as entire families died of starvation. Among the military the Germans suffered nearly 600,000 casualties and the Russians nearly three and half million.

The reviewer points out that:
The thinnest weave in Moynahan’s construction is Shostakovich himself. For long stretches he vanishes from the story, and I never quite felt I understood him, perhaps because he was dwarfed in the narrative by the scenes of battle and the agony of the city on its deathbed.
You probably need to be more of a musicologist than a regular historian to make sense of this. How could a mere piece of music capture anything of the horrors of events like these? Of course, it cannot, but Shostakovich made a very serious attempt.

He was born in this city, when it was called Saint Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia and the most open to Western influence. In 1914, when Shostakovich was just eight years old, it was re-named Petrograd. In 1924, after the Russian Revolution, when Shostakovich was seventeen, it was re-named Leningrad in honor of Vladimir Lenin, who had just died. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the city has returned to its historic name of Saint Petersburg. Shostakovich felt a keen attachment to the city and participated in the defence of the city before he was evacuated. He had already composed three (not two as the review states) movements of the symphony and played two of them for friends at his home.

The symphony begins with the optimistic music of peacetime. The first section, up to 5:45 in this clip, is cheerful. At that point the music comes to a halt and a single snare drum beats out a quiet tattoo. After a few bars, the violins enter with a very innocuous theme in pizzicato. Here is the beginning:

This builds and builds from a simple little march into something wild and menacing. The next clip contains much of this section, but from the very beginning with just the snare drum, to the very end of the section, it is about twice as long. An eleven minute long crescendo from a single snare to full orchestra with the addition of six trombones, six French horns, six trumpets and, in the live performance I heard, six percussionists! A crescendo that extreme is, of course, unrecordable as no sound system has the necessary dynamic range. You pretty much have to be there to have the full experience.

Now let's hear all that in context. Here is the whole first movement which is close to half an hour long (less in this brisk performance, but Haitink takes twenty-nine minutes):

Here is a performance of the whole symphony, nearly an hour and a half long, with a piano four-hands reduction of the score. Chicago Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

Shostakovich goes a very long way towards capturing at least something of the mood and atmosphere of those events. Program note writers love music like this because there is so much they can talk about other than the music. Some critics disparage program music generally because of the tendency towards "Mickey Mousing", meaning the kind of music that reflects every movement and gesture of a cartoon character. Shostakovich does not fall into that trap. Like Beethoven in the "Pastoral" he tries to capture just the mood or atmosphere--something that music is especially good at--rather than any details. We hear no literal artillery or starvation in this music, but we do hear a bright, optimistic beginning turn into a horrific reality.

One of the keenest parts of the story of the composition of the symphony is that regarding the premiere in the city of Leningrad itself:
The symphony had been performed in Moscow, London and New York before it returned to Leningrad, where it was played by a makeshift orchestra of emaciated musicians for an audience whose “stick-insect limbs” were hidden beneath their prewar finery. “The Seventh might have been performed better in some places but never has it been performed the way we played,” said an orchestra leader. The radio broadcast was carried by propaganda loudspeaker to the front lines and heard by Russian and German troops alike. The music proclaimed that the city Hitler had planned to level instead endured.
The Symphony No. 7 of Dmitri Shostakovich is dedicated to the city of Leningrad.


Anonymous said...


Recently i watched Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master;While it isn't a wholesome triumph like his earlier film There will be blood,it surely was an intense experience.Now coming to the topic of interest,the music accompanying the film was pathetic.If it was "filmy" movie score it would've been at least okay,but this was some random doodling from Jonny Greenwood of postmodern irony specialists Radiohead.I was constantly reminded that the film would have fared even better without the pretentious,terrible score that accompanied an intriguing film.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jack, and welcome to the Music Salon.

Thanks for the comment. I notice that the film directors that I find most interesting, including Stanley Kubrick, Peter Weir and Akira Kurosawa (and maybe Luc Besson, though to a lesser extent) are all ones that are particularly good in their choice of music.