June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. Dmitri Shostakovich enlisted up for military service. He received the reply: “We’ll call you if we need you”. Impatient to do something, he offered to join the home service. In the newspaper Izvestia on 4 July, he stated: “I will defend my homeland and am prepared to give my life and strength to carry out any mission I may be entrusted with.”
He joined the brigade of volunteers from the Conservatory. He helped dig antitank ditches around Leningrad and built barricades, later that month, he was trained as a fireman. But he would never put out a single fire, as everyone tried to spare him. His real talent was too valuable. Like many of his colleagues, Shostakovich wrote patriotic songs, including a marching song for the home service. His best-known song from that time, Oath to the People’s Commissar, ends with the line: “The great hour is here, Stalin leads us in the battle, his order is law! Go bravely into the battle!”.
On 19 July, Shostakovich began working on a major composition that would record his experiences in war for posterity: the Seventh Symphony. He composed with unparalleled intensity. Even as he was on duty on the rooftop of the Conservatory, he took his notebook with him. Later he declared, “I wrote my Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, fast. I couldn’t write it. War was raging all around. I had to be with the people, I wanted to paint the picture of the besieged country, to preserve it in music”.
When Shostakovich had finished the outline for the first movement, the German siege of Leningrad began. The artistic and intellectual elite had been evacuated, but Shostakovich could not be persuaded to leave. On 17 September, he said on the radio: “An hour ago, I completed the score for two movements of a major symphony. If I manage to compete the work, I may be able to call it my Seventh Symphony. Why am I telling you this? So that those who are now listening to me should know that life in our city is continuing as normal.” Shostakovich’ optimism was premature. The terrible consequences of the siege would soon be felt. Starvation was looming. The blockade of Leningrad would become the greatest tragedy of the Second World War after the Holocaust. Eight hundred thousand residents died. The human price was so great that after the war, there would be a debate as to whether the resistance was necessary. As if stones were more important than human beings.
Shostakovich experienced the siege until, on 1 October, he was evacuated. He left on the explicit orders of the party leadership, and he was taken with his family to Moscow. The media spread widely the story of his stay in Leningrad and his unwillingness to leave. Shostakovich became the great propaganda symbol of the young, courageous composer who wanted to defend his city in action and in art. On 15 October, he left for Kuybyshev, the temporary seat of the government, the diplomatic corps and the central press. This double move had disrupted his composing drive. The work on the fourth movement of the symphony was no longer advancing. On 9 December, he was given an apartment where at least he found the peace necessary to resume work. In December 1941, the symphony was completed.
The first performance of the Leningrad Symphony was on 5 March 1942. Samuil Samosud conducted the orchestra of the Bolshoi theatre. Thereafter, the symphony was played in Moscow and abroad. The success of the work and its symbolic impact exceeded all expectations. It travelled the world before Leningrad had a chance to hear it. On 22 June, Henry Wood conducted it in London. On 19 July, Arturo Toscanini performed the work for the radio. In 1942 and 1943, the symphony was played no fewer than 26 times in the United States. The symphony acquired a symbolic status of an anti-Nazi pamphlet in its tone.
Leningrad was able to hear its symphony for the first time only on 9 August 1942. The performance was conducted by Karl Eliasberg and the Radio Orchestra. The impact of the performance on the starving city cannot be overestimated. There were so many setbacks that the concert in itself counted as a heroic deed. At the beginning of July, the score was airlifted. Copyists worked day and night, struggling against the lack of sleep, paper and pens. The war had thinned the ranks of the Radio Orchestra to just fourteen musicians. The military leadership at the front gave musicians furlough to reinforce the orchestra. Loudspeakers broadcast the concert through the city. In the best tradition of the psychological war operations, there were also loudspeakers directed at the enemy, to make it clear that morale had not been broken. Before the concert began, the commander of the Russian artillery ordered the German bases to be pounded with extra firepower, to make sure that their cannons will fall silent.
The Soviet authorities were well aware of the psychological impact of art on the morale of the population. The Leningrad Symphony was praised in all the media as a monument to the heroic struggle of the Soviet people. Shostakovich confirmed this interpretation in countless interviews and articles. In Pravda, he stated: “The war we are fighting against Hitler is a just war. We are defending freedom, honour and the independence of our country. We are fighting for the highest human ideals in history. We are fighting for our culture, science, art, for all that we have created and built. And the Soviet artist will never abandon the historic confrontation that is now under way between reason and obscurantism, between culture and barbarism, between light and darkness. I dedicate my Seventh Symphony to our struggle against fascism, to our approaching victory over the enemy, and to the city of my birth, Leningrad.” In private conversations, Shostakovich relativised the single-mindedness of the message he conveyed in his Seventh. From the recollections of Flora Litvinova, we know that he protested an overly simplistic association of the music with a single theme: “Music, true music, is never literally bound to a theme Fascism is not just National Socialism. The music is about terror, slavery, the oppression of the spirit.”
The Leningrad Symphony is music that does not aim for any musical refinement. It expresses a direct message. Shostakovich defended his notable reference to Ravel’s Bolero in the first movement with the simple explanation: “Let them accuse me, but that is how I hear the war”. The music evokes the terror of the bombing and the sound of the sirens raising the alarm. Shostakovich gave titles to each of the four movements: 1. War, 2. Remembrance, 3. The wide spaces of our land, 4. Victory. Later, he dropped these because he found them too restrictive.
Western critics reacted fiercely to the success of the symphony. Virgil Thomson said it ‘seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted’. Béla Bartók parodied the invasion theme of the first movement in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra, where the theme is ‘laughed off’ by the woodwinds. For the Russian audience the criticism did not matter. For them, the Leningrad Symphony became a monument in sound to their heroic struggle. The symbolic value of the work has never waned to this day.
Commentary by Francis Maes (2003)
Editorial: Aurélie Walschaert