FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Leningrad, Shostakovich and the Music of Transcendence

Before I began writing this review I put Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on my CD player. This symphony, known as the Leningrad Symphony, is the inspiration for a new and wonderful history by M. T. Anderson. As I write these words, the First Movement is approaching its end. The Nazi armies are beginning their ferocious attack on Leningrad and other parts of the Soviet Union in Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. The symphony’s previous sounds of beauty are replaced by sounds of fear and threat; air raids and bombardments. The fear of Stalin’s police is superseded by the Nazi assault and the fear and death it brings.

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the greatest composers to have ever lived. His works are musical documents of the times he lived in and timeless works of beauty. From the bloodshed of two world wars, a revolution and counterrevolution, to the fear and brutality of Stalin’s rule, his symphonies, suites and chamber compositions reflect and inform the events which make up that history. The Twentieth Century will be remembered for a multitude of things; among them are the scientific advances we take for granted and the great progress humanity made in improving our species health and prolonging our lives. Despite these positives, though, there is another much darker set of memories. Foremost among the latter are the two world wars. Both wars were ultimately fought for reasons of power and wealth, and both caused the death of tens of millions. There is nothing else in history that compares to these bloody exercises in death. Virtually every nation bears some responsibility for the carrion that rotted into the ground because of these wars and their aftermaths. Naturally, there are two or three nations who bear the bulk of that responsibility, just as there are others who bore the bulk of the casualties.51myIyr6tUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

The Soviet Union was perhaps foremost among the latter. Millions died in its fight against the Nazi armies. More than a million of those died during the Nazi siege of the city of Leningrad–a siege that lasted 872 days. People ate paper and sawdust to survive. Some ate the dead, while a few even killed living humans and ate them. Corpses lay in the frozen streets after they fell dead from starvation and the unbearable cold of the Soviet winter. Thousands of residents were smuggled across a frozen lake out of the city during the winter, yet even then thousands died during their transport. Yet, when spring came, the citizens gathered their minimal strength and buried their dead. Some even planted flowers while many ate grass only because it was the only thing to eat. The story of this siege and the humans who survived it is one of humanity’s greatest and most heroic tales ever.

The siege is the setting of M. T. Anderson’s newest book, titled Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Anderson, who writes for the Young Adult market, is perhaps best known for his dystopian novel Feed and the Life of Octavio Nothing Duet, a pair of novels about an African slave in the period of the American colonists’ war for independence with a contrary take on that war and its myths. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a non-fiction work. Part biography and part history, it is a sweeping look at the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the rule of Stalin, and the fate of Leningrad under the Nazi siege.

Before one begins reading this book, it is essential to dismiss the classification of it as a book for young adults. Like Anderson’s other works, this book transcends marketing classifications. It is a work that, in its majesty, defies expectations and creates new definitions. The composer is the center of the tale, but, like all of us, he is also a plaything (perhaps even a victim) of forces and circumstances much greater than him. Born into pre-revolutionary times and witness/participant in subsequent revolutions, the Shostakovich presented here is first and foremost a musician. Yet, he is also a patriot and a believer in the Soviet revolution. Many of his compositions are an attempt to reconcile these aspects of his intellectual being.

Anderson reflects these facets of Shostakovich are being in this biography. The reader can feel the triumph of the composer when his first symphony is performed in public the first time. They can also anticipate the fear that comes from living under the iron hand of a ruler whose actions are inconsistent and often brutal. The joy his children bring him and the hopes they represent are felt as clearly as the death present every day of the bloody war.

Symphony for the City of the Dead is also the biography of the Leningrad. Always Russia’s city of the arts and music, it is also a city of revolution. Naturally, it buckles at the rule of a man like Stalin, but it keeps its figurative head high. It is this pride that helps its people survives the siege. Daunted and desperate, the spirit of Leningrad’s residents is really the ultimate determinant of its survival. This is why the story of the siege is such a heroic tale. Anderson understands this and makes it the foundation of his history.

The final piece of this biographical triad is the story of the symphony itself. Titled the “Leningrad Symphony,” it is Shostakovich’s Seventh. Shostakovich attacked the composition with vigor until he and his family were moved out of Leningrad with dozens of other artists. After leaving his city, he sunk into a depression and stopped composing. Anderson writes that Shostakovich told friends he could not write knowing how many people were dying in his city. Of course, he did eventually complete the work and performed it. Its first performance was broadcast over the radio. The reception was instantaneous and thunderous. Shostakovich’s symphony rallied his fellow citizens. Next was a performance in the city of Leningrad itself. It was a city slowly rising from the coma of the siege; musicians were hard to find and, when found, often too weak to play their instruments. Yet, the performance took place, after weeks of rehearsal. Meanwhile, the symphony’s score had been put on microfilm and was being smuggled to the United States, where it would be transcribed onto staff sheets and sent to Arturo Toscanini, who ultimately performed it with the NBC Radio Orchestra to a national radio audience on July 19, 1942. This performance is legendary. Indeed, it is one of the most legendary radio broadcasts of the Twentieth Century. It would help turn the US Congress in favor of joining the Soviet government’s armies to defeat the Nazis.

M. T. Anderson has written a marvel. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a singular and spectacular book. Although I found the politics occasionally too simplistic, this isn’t really a book about politics. It is much more. It is a powerful and wonderfully told narrative about the sheer majesty of the human will and the power of music to not only transcend the depths of human suffering, but to go deep into that pit, struggle there, and deny the victory of those demons who would rule us with hatred, fear and brutality.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

March 21, 2019
Daniel Warner
And Now Algeria
Renee Parsons
The Supreme Court and Dual Citizenship
Eric Draitser
On Ilhan Omar, Assad Fetishism, and the Danger of Red-Brown “Anti-Imperialism”
Elizabeth Keyes
Broadway’s “Hamilton” and the Willing Suspension of Reality-Based Moral Consciousness
David Underhill
Optional Fatherhood Liberates Christians From Abortion Jihad
Nick Pemberton
Is Kamala Harris the Centrist We Need?
Dean Baker
The Wall Street Bailouts, Bernie and the Washington Post
Russell Mokhiber
The Boeing Blackout
William Astore
America’s Senior Generals Find No Exits From Endless War
Jeff Hauser – Eleanor Eagan
Boeing Debacle Shows Need to Investigate Trump-era Corruption
Ramzy Baroud
Uniting Fatah, Not Palestinians: The Dubious Role of Mohammed Shtayyeh
Nick Licata
All Southern States are Not the Same: Mississippi’s Challenge
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Sly Encouragement of Lawless Violence
Cesar Chelala
Public Health Challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean
March 20, 2019
T.J. Coles
Countdown to “Full Spectrum Dominance”
W. T. Whitney
Re-Targeting Cuba: Why Title III of U.S. Helms-Burton Act will be a Horror Show
Kenneth Surin
Ukania’s Great Privatization Heist
Howard Lisnoff
“Say It Ain’t So, Joe:” the Latest Neoliberal from the War and Wall Street Party
Walter Clemens
Jailed Birds of a Feather May Sing Together
George Ochenski
Failing Students on Climate Change
Cesar Chelala
The Sweet Smell of Madeleine
Binoy Kampmark
Global Kids Strike
Nicky Reid
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: Requiem for a Fictional Party
Elliot Sperber
Empedocles and You and Me 
March 19, 2019
Paul Street
Socialism Curiously Trumps Fascism in U.S. Political Threat Reporting
Jonah Raskin
Guy Standing on Anxiety, Anger and Alienation: an Interview About “The Precariat”
Patrick Cockburn
The Brutal Legacy of Bloody Sunday is a Powerful Warning to Those Hoping to Save Brexit
Robert Fisk
Turning Algeria Into a Necrocracy
John Steppling
Day of Wrath
Robin Philpot
Truth, Freedom and Peace Will Prevail in Rwanda
Victor Grossman
Women Marchers and Absentees
Binoy Kampmark
The Dangers of Values: Brenton Tarrant, Fraser Anning and the Christchurch Shootings
Jeff Sher
Let Big Pharma Build the Wall
Jimmy Centeno
Venezuela Beneath the Skin of Imperialism
Jeffrey Sommers – Christopher Fons
Scott Walker’s Failure, Progressive Wisconsin’s Win: Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic Party Convention
Steve Early
Time for Change at NewsGuild?
March 18, 2019
Scott Poynting
Terrorism Has No Religion
Ipek S. Burnett
Black Lives on Trial
John Feffer
The World’s Most Dangerous Divide
Paul Cochrane
On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle
Dean Baker
The Fed and the 3.8 Percent Unemployment Rate
Thomas Knapp
Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark
Binoy Kampmark
Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings
Mark Weisbrot
The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition
Weekend Edition
March 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail