June 2017        

The Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich, and the airbrushing of history

Jenny Farrell

The cold war against Russia—and previously the Soviet Union—continues. This includes the removal from public memory of the many atrocities committed by Nazi Germany on the Soviet population and the latter’s heroic role in the defeat of fascism.
     On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This resulted in a slaughter of holocaust proportions: 25 million Russians perished, more than half the dead of the Second World War.
     One of the most horrendous acts of barbarity was the German blockade of Leningrad. For almost 900 days, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, all supplies were cut off, and the people of Leningrad systematically starved to death. More than a million Leningraders died.
     Fast forward to April 2017 and a fatal terrorist attack (by groups rather than states) takes place in St Petersburg (Leningrad). After similar attacks in Western European cities, the national flag of that country has been projected onto Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate as an expression of solidarity—but not this time, because St Petersburg has no “special relationship” with Berlin, according to the mayor––a native of West Berlin. Perhaps the airbrushing of history meant he had never heard of Leningrad.
     The Siege of Leningrad was recorded not only in books but in music. A resident in Leningrad at the time was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He began work on a symphony immediately the attack began, expressing his thoughts on Soviet life and the ability of his people to defeat the fascists. This, his Seventh Symphony, is known as the Leningrad.
     It has four movements. The first is entitled “War” and begins with lyrical music describing a peaceful life in the USSR before the fascist invasion. A solo violin is interrupted by a distant drum and the “invasion theme,” which is repeated twelve times, with a growing number of instruments, growing ever louder and shriller, creating a profound sense of unease. Military drums punctuate this section, which ends in an outcry of pain and horror. A quieter passage follows—a solo flute, then a bassoon, grieving the dead. Accompaniment is fragmented, so expressing the broken people it bewails. Dissonances dominate.
     In the second movement, “Memories,” the mood changes to happier times, some dance melodies, although a note of sadness is also present.
     The music of the third movement, “Wide Expanses of Our Land,” affirms the heroism of the people, their humanism, and Russia’s great natural beauty. The movement is a dialogue between chorale, the solace given by the splendour of the homeland, and the solo voice, the violins, the individual in torment. Both the second and the third movement express Shostakovich’s conviction that “war doesn’t necessarily destroy cultural values.”
     About the final movement, “Victory,” Shostakovich commented: “My idea of victory isn’t something brutal; it’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.” The movement begins by describing, musically, people at work in peacetime, full of hope and happiness, as the drums and guns of war overcome them. The music marches, fights, and resists.
     Victory does not come easily. Shostakovich begins with the timpani roll that concluded the slow third movement and gradually adds other voices. Slowly the music moves towards its conclusion, with brass fanfares and cymbal crashes. It forces its way into bright C major—the upbeat key of victory. Yet the final chords in this most magnificent of keys contain a sorrowful sound. In full recognition of the realities, the unimaginable suffering of war, the symphony cannot end in simple triumph.
     Shostakovich composed most of the symphony while under siege in Leningrad. Several months into the blockade, and despite his objections, the Soviet government evacuated the Shostakovich family, along with other artists.
     The Leningrad Symphony was performed on 9 August 1942 in his besieged home city. The score was airlifted in across Nazi lines. The orchestra had only fifteen musicians left, but more were recalled from the front.
     A clarinet-player at this historic performance, Galina Lelyukhina, recalled rehearsals: “They said on the radio that all living musicians were invited. It was hard to walk. I was sick with scurvy, and my legs were very painful. At first there were nine of us, but then more people arrived. The conductor, Eliasberg, was brought on a sledge, because hunger had made him so weak.”
     On 9 August 1942 the hall was packed, with windows and doors open so that those outside could hear. The music was broadcast on the streets and to the fronts to inspire the whole nation. The Red Army pre-empted German plans to disrupt the performance by shelling the enemy beforehand to ensure silence for the two hours needed for the concert.
     A survivor of the blockade, Irina Skripacheva, remembers: “This symphony had a huge impact on us. The rhythm incited a feeling of elevation, flight . . . At the same time we could feel the scary rhythm of the German hordes. It was unforgettable and overwhelming.”
     Seventy-five years later, along Russia’s western border, NATO (including German) tanks and troops prepare for war.

■ Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, is available on Youtube.

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