Why it makes sense to perform Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony today
Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony in 1941, during the siege of his hometown Leningrad by Nazi Germany. The composer wrote the first three movements while in the city, after which he was required to evacuate. The siege is a terrible episode in Russian history and one of many examples in warfare where a magnificent city was not only attacked for military-strategic reasons, but at least as much to deal a blow to the soul of its people. In this respect, there is certainly a comparison to be made with the present siege of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. There are also huge differences that make any comparison difficult and even dangerous: where Russia was the victim in the siege of Leningrad, it is itself the aggressor in the Ukrainian war. This raises the question of whether today it is legitimate and/or opportune to perform an emotionally charged work like Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
In general terms, one can today take two basic positions with respect to Russian cultural products. We recently saw the first at the four-day Shostakovich festival in BOZAR that started just a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, but continued nonetheless. This included, on Friday 25 February, a performance of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, preceded by the most silent minute’s silence I’ve ever experienced. This silence was certainly more than a tribute to the Ukrainians, but was also meant as a moment of reflection. Paradoxically enough, the Russian music created a powerful humanitarian awareness and an almost tangible empathy with the Ukrainian people. Incidentally, the concert was also preceded by a short statement, in which the war was denounced and support for the Ukrainian people was expressed. In brief, a context was created in which reflection and empathy were stimulated, where the plight of the Ukrainians was definitely the priority, and the music handled in a manner which – in the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth – called for solidarity rather than further alienation. One can well imagine that the Ukrainians themselves, right now have no time for conciliatory initiatives but, cynically enough, every historical conflict until now has ultimately decided upon an act of reconciliation. Besides, discrete reconciliatory gestures are probably more beneficial than the rhetoric of war, however abstract or futile they might appear at such a moment.
A second basic premise exists in which every trace of Russian culture is temporarily banished from our lives. So did the Haarlem Philharmonic recently decide to cancel their 48-hour festival of Russian music because “now would not be appropriate to celebrate Russian music”. Aside from the fact that the two featured composers (Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky) have very little to do with current developments and even with the ideologies that form its background, this decision was also naturally meant as a demonstration of support for the Ukrainian people, and from this perspective certainly honourable. (By the way, instead of the planned festival, there are now two benefit concerts taking place.) Nevertheless, their decision raises certain questions. Russia expert Michel Krielaars, who recently published a book on music during the Stalin years (The sound of the State of Salvation), was quick to state that we should always continue to make a distinction between “the Russia of Putin and the Russia of Pushkin”. Politics and culture cannot simply be associated with one another, and that applies also to the leaders of a people and the people themselves. Such self-censorship is perhaps a well-meant symbol of empathy but where does it end? Until when do we ban Russian music? Who is affected by it and who actually benefits from it?
Occasionally, as with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, things are (even) more complex. Simply because of the unusual context of its creation, this symphony carries a highly explicit Russian imprint. Even if one opts for the first basic premise (namely, to continue playing Russian music even during this war), a work such as the Seventh could nevertheless provoke opposition. This basically has to do with two issues. The first is that the Seventh Symphony is a programmatic symphony: it is explicitly linked to an extra-musical event (Nazi-Germany’s attack on Leningrad) and the music is to a certain extent a reflection of this. It is clearly audible in the lengthy, overwhelming first movement in which the central section evokes an invasion; and again in the final movement, which expresses the hope for eventual victory. The second issue is that the symphony has, certainly in its finale, a clearly triumphalist character, which for many in Russia has become a symbol of national pre-eminence. For example, it was no coincidence that this work was on the poster when the much talked about, and until very recently in the West much-praised, conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in the South-Ossetian capital Tskhinvali in 2008, to celebrate the expulsion of Georgians by the Russian military.
Further nuancing is therefore necessary here. As always when interpreting Shostakovich, we are for the most part referred to problematic sources. On the one hand, there exist many documents from Shostakovich himself. However, these are often published via official channels and are therefore not always reliable. On the other hand, we have numerous written testimonies about Shostakovich that are for the most part highly biased, depending on whether the writer wishes (or wished) to portray Shostakovich as a victim, or otherwise, of the communist regime. These views have become so polarised over the past forty years that impartiality is now almost impossible (see on this matter my recent short publication De leugens en de schaterlach [Lies and laughter]), which is why it is futile to go in search of a singular, undisputed truth. What one can do is clarify various aspects of the reception history and then, with the utmost caution, adopt one’s stance.
At the time he was writing this symphony, Shostakovich himself spoke frequently about the ideas that formed the basis for it. One of his most concrete statements appeared in Pravda at the end of March 1942, three weeks after the premiere, and goes as follows: “The war that we are currently waging against Hitler is an absolutely just war. We are defending the freedom, the honour and the independence of our fatherland. We are fighting for the highest humanitarian ideals in history. We are fighting for our culture, science, art and everything that we have created and built. The Soviet-artist will never hang back from the historic confrontation now taking place between reason and obscurantism, between culture and barbarism, between light and darkness. I dedicate my symphony to our fight against fascism, to our imminent victory over the enemy, and to my birthplace, Leningrad.”
What immediately strikes one in this statement is the direct reference to German fascism, the self-profiling as Soviet-artist and the combative, indeed patriotic, rhetoric. These elements recur time and again in the wide reception history of the piece in the early ‘40s, not only in Russia but also in much of Europe and even in the United States. Here of course it must not be forgotten that Nazi Germany at that time was regarded by all these parties as a common enemy.
From 1979 onwards, particularly after the publication of Shostakovich’s allegedly authentic Testimony by the young Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich’s image changed dramatically. He was now portrayed as a kind of secret dissident, who had supposedly always been a rabid opponent of the communist regime and who, in many of his works, had concealed messages that revealed this aversion clearly to good listeners. Naturally, that view, whose essence was certainly justified but whose elaboration is probably too tendentious, had enormous implications for the interpretation of the Seventh Symphony. This specific work, which during World War II had increasingly stood as the symbol of Shostakovich’s Soviet sympathies, was now seized upon to assert precisely the opposite. “The invasion theme has nothing to do with that invasion”, maintained Shostakovich, according to Volkov.
“I was thinking of completely different enemies of mankind when I composed that theme. Naturally I feel only abhorrence for fascism; not only for the German form, but for every form of fascism. The time before the war is now often depicted as an idyll. Everything was wonderful then, they say, until Hitler disrupted it. Hitler was a criminal, that is certain. But Stalin too. I have so much grief for all those people that Hitler destroyed. But I have no less grief for the people murdered on Stalin’s orders. I grieve for all those people tortured to death, shot to death and starved to death. Before the war against Hitler began, there were already millions of victims in our country.” According to Volkov, Shostakovich explained many of his symphonies as requiems or funerary monuments, particularly for the many ‘disappeared’ victims who did not even have a grave.
What is crucial about this statement is obviously the quite radical shift in perspective. In comparison with the comments made in the early ‘40s, Stalin in particular is now the main target. This switch aligns with Volkov’s broader attempt to put on display a completely new portrait of Shostakovich, in which Stalin was an even greater foe than Hitler. In essence however, this is mostly about an expansion of perspective: the symphony is equally anti-German and anti-Russian, but essentially it is primarily anti-totalitarian. Considered in this light, it takes on rather the allure of a universal, humanitarian indictment. Other sources, even some sources from the early ‘40s, seem to support this view; as, for example, Shostakovich’s statement, reported by Flora Litvinova, that fascism was indeed the theme of the symphony, but that “genuine music is never bound to a single theme” and that it was mainly “music about terror, slavery, spiritual depletion” and “about every tyranny or totalitarianism generally”.
Furthermore, what is important is that the two visions are not fundamentally irreconcilable, and certainly not if one knows exactly how to evaluate the composer’s (at that time more or less inescapable) self-promotion as Soviet-artist and the bellicose, patriotic rhetoric. Whoever only focuses on the content of the 1942 text, reads that Shostakovich through his symphony is, above all, fighting “for the highest humanitarian ideals in history (…), for our culture, science, art and for everything we have created and built up (…) for reason against obscurantism, for culture against barbarity, for light against darkness.” That Shostakovich thereby, in an all-out war situation, took the siege of Leningrad as his starting and reference point is no more than logical, but it may not be a reason for seeing the symphony as simply a symbol of Russian defiance and triumphalism.
Since almost every source and statement from and about Shostakovich is open to dispute, it is also useful to bring other examples of the composer’s work into the analysis. From this, we see that Shostakovich did often have a broader view on humanitarian issues and the injustice visited on others. One example in particular springs to mind in the present context: the already mentioned Thirteenth Symphony. This symphony was written long after the Seventh, in 1961-62, but it is also about war-time events that took place in 1941. The work’s title is Babi Yar and refers to a ravine in Kyiv, literally a stone’s throw from the place where, in the early days of the Ukraine war, the tall television tower was bombarded. In this ravine, in September ’41, approximately 34,000 Jews were murdered. Shostakovich was not Jewish himself but detested any form of antisemitism and by extension any form of violence. That he wrote this symphony, living in a regime that itself displayed clear anti-Semitic tropes, is in any case a courageous act and is actually in itself sufficient to show that Shostakovich was never a narrow-minded or slavish nationalist. The text used by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko makes this even clearer. Thus one reads in the first section: “Oh, my Russian people, I know that deep within you are internationalists / but those with soiled hands have abused your good name.” Something like that naturally went down the wrong way with Soviet leaders. In particular, the composer and poet were informed that they were focussing too much on Jewish victims, while at Babi Yar “Russians and Ukrainians were also killed and lay communally in the same ground.” This was all already particularly cynical in 1961, and today it is naturally even more so; certainly when one considers that one of the motives for the present Russian aggression is the supposed ‘nazism’ of the Ukrainian government (by the way, led by a Jew).
In the same poem about Babi Yar, one also reads: “I myself am a long, silent scream / above the thousands and thousands who lie buried here / I am each man who was shot dead here. / I am each child who was shot dead here. / Nothing in me will ever forget this.” Of course, during the siege of Leningrad, the poem had not yet been written, but the fact that, many years later, Shostakovich chose this text to begin his audacious symphony, indicates how deeply rooted his grief lay and how unlikely it is that the Seventh Symphony would be nothing more than an expression of profound love of the fatherland. However, if this were the case, a performance of the Leningrad symphony would be, in the present circumstances, undoubtedly misplaced. In the opposite case, that this nationalistic element is a minor part of the overall humanitarian protest enclosed in the symphony, then its performance is certainly relevant.
What’s more: given that the status of a work of art is not simply defined by the meaning given to it in the past (by the composer or others), but also by the way we see it today, a contemporary performance can rightly have the objective of increasing its higher humanitarian relevance for the future. Seen thus, the Leningrad symphony becomes less and less a symphony about one particular conflict, and more and more a symbol of the perpetual search for “culture over barbarity” and “light over darkness”.
Pieter Bergé, professor of musicology at KU Leuven