A few weeks ago, we attended a performance in the Reduta Hall with our friends, Igor and Vlasta. The Slovak Philharmonic performed Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. I was a bit concerned when Igor mentioned it was a “powerful symphony which told a vivid story”. I tend to be a bit black and white – subtlety is not my strength. I need not have feared.
The piece was written by the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, in 1941 during the nearly 900 day siege of Leningrad. It commemorates the approximately one million Leningrad citizens who died in that first year as the Nazis surrounded the city, deliberately starving the townspeople captured inside. The winter of 1941 was cold – even by local standards. During that first winter, 100,000 people died each month.
Shostakovich was a prodigy, and a son of Leningrad, born in the city then known as St. Petersburg. He entered the musical conservatory at 13. During the siege, at a relatively young 35 years of age, he completed the first and second movements of the symphony as a captive. The last two movements were written after his relocation to safety outside of Leningrad. The Leningrad philharmonic musicians were also evacuated to a safer haven. The musicians subsequently travelled throughout Russia performing the symphony as a tribute to their home city still under siege.
During the spring of 1942, it was proposed that the symphony should be performed in Leningrad. Unfortunately, the 15 surviving musicians still living in Leningrad were far short of the 80 or more required to perform the piece. A call went out to anyone able to play an instrument. Soldiers were enlisted as were local amateurs and students. Eventually, the required eighty musicians gathered. The first practices were limited to 15 minutes. Hunger and exhaustion prevented anything longer. The Shostakovich symphony is 75 minutes. Three men from the rag-tag orchestra starved to death during the time frame leading up to the performance. The performance was scheduled for August 9, 1942.
Citizens exchanged their bread rations for performance tickets. The night before the concert, the Russian Army bombarded the German lines to ensure the concert would be uninterrupted. Speakers were set up throughout the city and along the front line trenches. Every citizen and soldier, of both nationalities, could hear the concert. One person, living in Leningrad at the time, wrote in their diary of “people listing to the symphony with closed eyes. It seemed that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music…”
As the emotional performance ended, the hall was silent. Then, the weak audience began to clap as tears streamed down their faces. To this day, survivors recall the moment as one of the most powerful out pourings of both grief and hope during the war.
Shostakovich would be proud of the Slovak orchestra on this Friday evening. The symphony opens with a 30 minute movement. A drummer beats the march of the Nazis – a simple rhythm underpinning almost the entire 30 minutes. It is one of the most powerful moments in music. The conductor thrashed, imploring an outpouring of sound and emotion. The more than 100 musicians responded.
As I said, I need not have worried over my lack of musical interpretive skills. The music tells a story as clearly as if it were spoken: a peaceful city rich with music; the march of the invading army; starvation and death; and ultimately hope. To this day, the symphony plays from speakers over Shostakovich’s grave site. If you get a chance to hear the Shostakovich symphony, grab it.
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