From September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, 872 days, the city of Leningrad was under siege by Nazi German forces whose mandate from Hitler was to wipe Leningrad off the face of the Earth. It is estimated that over a million people died, mostly from starvation, stress and exposure. The perseverance and defiance of the people of Leningrad was remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that Dmitri Shostakovich decided to dedicate his 7th symphony to the city of Leningrad, his hometown. The work remains one of Shostakovich’s best-known compositions.
In Symphony for the City of the Dead, long listed for the National Book Award, M. T. Anderson weaves together Shostakovich’s life, work, hometown, and the siege.
The book is told in three parts. Part one tells Shostakovich’s story. Born in 1906, he was really a child of the Revolution. A prodigy who embraced the art and music of Russian futurism and the avant-garde. Eventually, though, he fell foul of Stalin and feared that he would be swallowed up in the purges of the 1930’s banished to exile or to the Gulags. Eventually, he regained his footing and, by the time of the outbreak of what the Russian;s call the Great Patriotic War, he was more or less safe.
Part Two covers the period of the war and the composition of the 7th symphony. Anderson provides excellent background information to the war and, although I consider myself fairly well read on the subject of WWII and the Soviet Union, having read a lot of Solzhenitsyn in my youth, I learned facts about Stalin I’d never heard before. We see Shostakovich composing as the situation in Leningrad deteriorates, composing the first three movements in besieged Leningrad. Eventually he, along with his wife and children and other important residents of Leningrad, are evacuated and we see him struggle to finish the 7th symphony in exile while he worried about family members who were left behind.
Part three covers the post war period and the rise of the Cold War. Shostakovich found himself once more a victim of Stalin’s criticism and denounced by former friends and colleagues. Stalin’s death in 1953 saw Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as a creative artist.
The book includes extensive photo, notes and a bibliography. It is an excellent piece of research and shines a light on the importance of the arts in a world gone mad.
Publisher’s Summary: In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.
This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.