Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 60, Leningrad

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

BORN: September 25, 1906. Saint Petersburg, Russia

DIED: August 9, 1975. Moscow

COMPOSED: July 15 to December 27, 1941, and dedicated “To the City of Leningrad”

WORLD PREMIERE: March 5, 1942. Samuil Samosud conducted the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in the Palace of Culture in Kuibyshev (now Samara), Russia

US PREMIERE: July 19, 1942. NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1943. At a Municipal Concert under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. MOST RECENT—April 2004. Yuri Temirkanov conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet) and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum (the composer recommended 2 or 3 if practical), cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, two harps, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 70 mins

THE BACKSTORY In Soviet Russia, where life was a challenge to begin with, survival during World War II became precarious. Composers were enlisted to produce propagandistic pieces to support the Soviet efforts in the Great Patriotic War, as it was generally known there. While the hostilities were going on, Dmitri Shostakovich created two, and perhaps three, “war symphonies” that related directly to the experience of Soviet citizens. The first of them was his Seventh, the Leningrad Symphony.

In the years directly preceding the War, Shostakovich’s situation was relatively stable—far better than it had been during the dark days after his operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been condemned by the Soviet leadership in 1930 and 1936 respectively. He had achieved redemption through his Fifth Symphony (1937) and was living with his family in Leningrad, in an apartment provided by the Composers’ Union—so in quite congenial circumstances. In 1937 he was also appointed professor at the Leningrad Conservatory, and once the War got underway he kept busy writing scores for Soviet propaganda films.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. and the war officially began. Rejected from army service due to poor eyesight, Shostakovich volunteered to serve on the Leningrad Conservatory’s fire brigade. A photograph of him in that capacity, widely printed in Russian newspapers, served as the basis for the illustration “Fireman Shostakovich” that graced the cover of Time magazine on July 20, 1942. Behind his resolute portrait are scenes of fiery destruction plus a staff of music, on which is written a four-note motif played by strings and bassoons in the second and third measures of his Seventh Symphony.

By September 8, 1941, Nazi forces surrounded Leningrad, beginning a siege that would last for 872 days until January 17, 1944, when the endgame of the European war began to play out in favor of the Allied Forces. The Siege of Leningrad was an atrocity that may have led to more casualties than any other single event in the history of warfare. Nobody knows how many citizens died of starvation, freezing, deprivation, disease, and despair, not to mention the usual casualties from military bombardment. Estimates range from about 600,000 to 1.5 million. Interested persons might steel themselves to read Brian Moynahan’s book Leningrad: Siege and Symphony or to view the BBC documentary film Leningrad and the Orchestra that Defied Hitler.

Appreciating the role that creative artists could play in the war effort, Joseph Stalin evacuated an elite group to the Volga city of Kuibyshev that October, deep within Russia’s interior. Valerian Kuibyshev was an economic advisor who demanded an investigation of several high-profile murders that Stalin had almost certainly ordered. He died of “heart failure” within a month and his wife and brother were killed shortly thereafter. Stalin, an aficionado of irony, asserted his innocence by renaming the city of Samara after him; it reverted to its original name in 1991.

The massive Leningrad Symphony is tied up with the Siege, and it includes descriptive military passages, but it does not strive to depict only gloom. (That lay ahead in the Eighth Symphony.) In fact, Shostakovich began the Seventh prior to the Siege of Leningrad, although most of the composition did take place during that time, in Leningrad and Kuibyshev. In a radio broadcast, he stated that the work had to do with how “life goes on in our city.…When I walk through our city a feeling of deep conviction grows within me that Leningrad will always stand, grand and beautiful, on the banks of the Neva, that it will always be a bastion of my country, that it will always be there to enrich the fruits of culture.”

The premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place in Kuibyshev, where the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra had also been evacuated. “I worry that there are not enough orchestral forces here to cope,” Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman, “because the symphony does call for a very large orchestra.” He would have preferred to entrust the new work to the Leningrad Philharmonic and Evgeny Mravinsky, but they had been removed far away to Siberia.

The real prize however, was to have it played in besieged Leningrad. An ensemble was assembled by military musicians released from combat for the occasion, along with remnants of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra and local instrumentalists who were still among the living, if by the slenderest thread. Conductor Karl Eliasberg insisted on the highest musical standards, although his players sometimes fainted from hunger and toppled from their chairs. Twenty-seven of the musicians who participated in rehearsals did not play in the concert, twenty-five of them because they had died. Listeners jammed the Philharmonic Hall on August 9, 1942—the 335th day of the Siege—with audience and musicians approximating “concert dress” as best they could. “They had not cried over the dead bodies of their loved ones in winter,” a witness reported, “but now the tears came, ‘bitter and relieving’ and unashamed.”

THE MUSIC In 1941, Shostakovich commented on his symphony in the periodical Sovetskoye iskusstvo (Soviet Art). “The exposition of the first movement … is the simple, peaceful life lived before the war by thousands of Leningrad militiamen, by the whole city, by our country. In the development, war bursts into the peaceful life of these people. I am not aiming for the naturalistic depiction of war, the depiction of the clatter of arms, the explosion of shells, and so on. I am trying to convey the image of war emotionally.” This transition—war creeping into peaceful lives—gives rise to page after page of a tattoo played on the snare drum (or two or three, Shostakovich suggested, if they were available), eventually joined by other percussion instruments, with the orchestra repeating its staunch music against their rhythm. “The recapitulation is a funeral march or, rather, a requiem for the victims of the war.” The composer considered setting this section to a text but failed to come up with words sufficient for the tale that needed to be told. “Maybe what is here are a mother’s tears or even that feeling when grief is so great that there are no tears left.”

“The second and third movements,” he continued, “are not associated with a specific program. They are intended to serve as a lyrical respite.” The second movement he characterized as “a very lyrical scherzo [with] a little humor in it,” the third as “a passionate adagio, the dramatic center of the work.” He considered attaching a title to each movement—respectively “War,” “Memories,” “The Country’s Wide Expanses,” and “Victory”—but dropped that idea, worrying that they would be overly restrictive in guiding listeners’ personal reactions to the music. The idea of victory is nonetheless inherent in the finale, if not in a simplistically swaggering way. It begins with strings creeping circumspectly above the quiet roll of the timpani, like people poking their heads out to survey what remains after a disaster. The tempo picks up, the volume increases, the texture broadens, and one glimpses fragments of a theme trying to crystallize (oddly, it seems to be the theme of the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony). Drums and brass fanfares return, but expectations are subverted by a mournful interlude in which strings and brass suggest a funeral procession. The music recedes into private contemplation (strings with touches of bass clarinet and bassoons); but from this the music builds, with extra horns, trumpets, and trombones enlarging the orchestra’s sound, the grandiosity ushering the listener to victory after all. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal) 

(October 2019)