Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich is one of the most famous Russian composers in history. He was, like many great artists, a harmony of contradictions. A musical genius, Shostakovich had a passionate personality yet is perhaps best known for his sweeping, solemn classical compositions. He is most closely associated with St. Petersburg, which became known as Leningrad (from 1924 to 1991), where he was born on Sept. 25, 1906 and where he would not only survive a 900-day Nazi siege during World War II but would also create a composition in lasting memory of it.
Shostakovich is well-known for his at times tempestuous relationship with Soviet authorities. An extremely versatile composer, he flirted with avant-garde and edgy musical productions in his early career but started hammering out solemn scores following a Soviet crackdown on modern art and music and public denunciations in Communist newspapers. Listeners can get a sense of Shostakovich’s captivating combination of solemnity and spunk listening to Waltz. No. 2 of his 1938 Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2, which remains popular many years after his death.
During World War II, Shostakovich was present in his embattled home city of Leningrad as Adolf Hitler’s and his Finnish ally’s troops attempted to seize it in the war’s longest siege. Before German troops had even invaded Soviet soil, the Nazis had already developed a “starvation plan” to destroy Russians and eradicate the inhabitants of Leningrad. On May 2, 1941, Nazi ministers of Economic Command Staff East wrote in a memorandum: “The war can only continue to be waged if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia … if what is necessary is extracted from the land, tens of millions of people will doubtlessly starve to death.” Formal guidelines for the “starvation policy” were issued to military forces on May 23: “The population of these territories, in particular the population of the cities, will have to face the most terrible famine … Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will have to die or migrate to Siberia.” As the people of Leningrad, including Shostakovich and his family, innocently went about their daily lives, the Nazis calculated how many of them would starve. In July 1941, Franz Alfred Six, leader of Advance Commando Moscow of Einsatzgruppe B, told German military officials: “Hitler intends to extend the eastern border of the Reich as far as the line Baku-Stalingrad-Moscow-Leningrad … a ‘blazing strip’ will emerge in which all life is to be erased,” he said, adding. “It is intended to decimate about 30 million Russians living in this strip through starvation, by removing all foodstuffs.” Six told the men that Leningrad was to be razed to the ground and that all Germans were “forbidden on pain of death to give a Russian even a piece of bread.”
The suffering endured by the starving civilians of Leningrad is impossible to describe. However, they did not capitulate.
Braving the German siege alongside his neighbors, Shostakovich wrote a symphony that he hoped would inspire their bravery. Although Shostakovich would write many more famous compositions up until his death in 1975, this wartime symphony remains one of his best-known works.
By summer 1942 Russia had been in World War Il for one year, and America for six months. Time magazine covers displayed portraits of statesmen and soldiers such as Chiang Kai-shek, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Gen. “Hap” Arnold, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The magazine’s July 20 issue, however, depicted a volunteer Russian fireman on a rooftop in besieged Leningrad. Peering through thick spectacles from under a helmet, the “fireman” might have been taken for a first-year conservatory student. This was Dmitri Shostakovich—one of the world’s most eminent classical composers.
Shostakovich wrote a symphony dedicated to the people of his city, Leningrad, as it endured encirclement by the German Wehrmacht and forces of their Finnish ally. On the longest day of Leningrad’s Arctic “White Nights,” he planned to take a break and purchased a ticket for a soccer game the following day. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler invaded Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union by launching Operation Barbarossa along a 1,000-mile front. The invasion disrupted Shostakovich’s life and shaped the development of his music. Within a month he set down the notes of his Symphony No. 7, becoming appropriately known as Leningrad.
Hitler’s blitzkrieg swept eastward, swamping Red Army units. Barely 500 miles across the flat buffer zone of the USSR’s recently annexed Baltic littoral, Leningrad was to be taken by the northernmost of three German invasion axes (the center axis targeted Moscow while the southern axis aimed at Kiev). Hardly a week after the invasion began, city authorities called for volunteers to defend a last-ditch line along the Luga River, only about 80 miles from Leningrad’s outskirts. Shostakovich, then age 34, declared that peaceful pursuits must yield to the need to take up arms and answered the call. Yet he was turned away for defective eyesight and sent back to the city for air raid duty. Many of the other Luga volunteers would never return.
The Luga line broke under pressure. On Aug. 20 Andrei Zhdanov, the Communist Party secretary in Leningrad, ominously announced: “The enemy is at the gates.” It was barely nine weeks since the Germans had crossed the Soviet border. Ten days later the Nazis cut the last railroad between Leningrad and the rest of Russia, putting the city under siege. Defensive works appeared around and within the city. Trenches were excavated across the lawns of parks. Massive concrete “dragon’s teeth” were strewn across streets to impede German tanks. Leningrad’s most iconic landmark, the “bronze horseman” statue of Peter the Great, disappeared behind protective sandbags.
By the time Leningrad experienced its first artillery and air attacks early in September, Shostakovich had completed his symphony’s first movement. Writing by day, he served as a fire warden at night, climbing to the roof of his fifth-floor flat in the Petrograd section north of the Neva River to perform his duty. As the Germans tightened their noose around Leningrad, he finished the second movement and reported his progress on the symphony over the radio. “I tell you this so that those Leningraders who are now listening to me shall know that the life of our city is going on normally,” he stated. “Remember that our art is threatened with great danger. We will defend our music.”
He invited several musicians to his apartment to hear his work. As he pounded out the piano score, sirens announced the imminence of another air raid. Sending his wife and children to a shelter, he continued playing to Luftwaffe bombs and anti-aircraft fire. As the Red Army defenders stabilized the lines around the city at the end of September, Shostakovich finished the third of his symphony’s four movements.
As the Germans transferred their invasion’s main effort south for the drive on Moscow, Shostakovich was also airlifted by the Russians to Moscow. As their DC-3 flew over the Leningrad lines, Shostakovich with his wife Nina and children Galina and Maxim left behind a city of more than two million, many of whom were restricted to a diet of 5 1/2 pounds of food a month. Mass starvation took a ghastly toll, especially throughout the winter when home heating was nearly impossible. Workers stepped over the frozen bodies of people in doorways who had died of starvation.
Shostakovich initially resisted being evacuated from Leningrad, but Stalin was determined to protect the most renowned assets of Soviet culture. With Moscow itself under threat, Russian artists as well as industries were transplanted eastward. Two weeks after their arrival, Shostakovich and his family boarded a train, along with composers Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky and members of the Bolshoi Theatre. Their destination was Kuibyshev (today known as Samara on the Volga) over 600 miles east of Moscow. The family settled into a three-room suite with a grand piano.
Depressed by the devastation he had witnessed in Leningrad and the peril facing Moscow, Shostakovich could not immediately complete his symphony and was unable to think creatively for several weeks. After the Germans were stopped before Moscow in early December, however, he experienced a renewed burst of energy and finished the composition in two weeks. By early 1942, he had performed the complete piano score before an intimate group of fellow refugees. Two more months of revision and orchestration preceded the first public performance of the “Leningrad’ Symphony in Kuibyshev by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under Samuil Samosud.
The “Leningrad” Symphony was not “battle music” in the mold of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory.” “I wanted to convey the content of grim events,” explained Shostakovich. He originally supplied the following titles for the symphony’s movements: “War,” “Memories,” “Our Country’s Wide Spaces,” and “Victory” (although at some point he stopped using the titles and simply referred to the movements by their tempo markings—Allegretto, Adagio, etc.).
Crowded into the expansive opening movement were depictions of Leningrad in peace, followed by the German invasion, and finally a requiem for the fallen. At half an hour, it was almost a symphony in itself. The ensuing three movements might have seemed short only by comparison with the first: after a brief moderato—a gentle allegretto—is followed by an adagio seen as a further lament for the costs of war, with martial hints of the coming Soviet counteroffensive near the end. Victory is predicted in the final movement with a triumphant recapitulation of the solemn theme that had opened the symphony.
As epic in scope as the events inspiring it, the “Leningrad” symphony called for a huge orchestra and ran for an hour and a quarter—making it the longest symphony since those of the late-Romanticist Austrian composers, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.
In the middle of the first movement, Shostakovich created a segment that became known as the “invasion” theme. It begins almost imperceptibly with a soft march in the strings that picks up heavier instrumentation, including an insistent snare drum, through a dozen repetitions. It grows louder and more ominous over a period of 10 minutes, culminating in a goose-stepping crescendo. To one who heard it as played by Shostakovich in Kuibyshev, the theme, “initially just playful, primitive,” was “gradually transformed into something terrifying, acquiring a force capable of obliterating everything in its path.” Russian sculptor Vera Mukhina was reminded of a “form of torture when drops of water fell on a person’s head, and he would go mad.” The composer of the Soviet national anthem, Alexander Alexandrov, said the symphony had “shaken him to the core.”
Musicologists have since identified the invasion tune as Shostakovich borrowing from Hitler’s favorite operetta, Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” where Count Danilo Danilovitsch sings, “Then I go to Maxim’s, they know me there.” Shostakovich himself characterized his “invasion” theme as epitomizing “the banality of evil itself.” For the moment it was an anti-Hitler theme. Later he told intimates the symphony as a whole was “not just about fascism but about. . . any form of totalitarian regime.”
Fortunately, Stalin didn’t bother to analyze the “invasion” theme or the Seventh Symphony as a whole. He saw the work as a magnificent propaganda opportunity—an expression of the unconquerable spirit of the Soviet people. On March 29 the Seventh had its formal premiere in Moscow’s Hall of Columns. During a subsequent performance the audience remained rapt in their seats through an air raid alarm. In April Shostakovich’s symphony was awarded the Stalin Prize First Class in Music.
Stalin was eager to show it to Russia’s Western allies, Great Britain and the United States. A microfilm copy of the score was flown to Tehran, transferred by car to Cairo, then by plane across Africa and on to London and New York. On the first anniversary of the German invasion in June, Sir Henry Wood gave the work its English premiere in a BBC broadcast performance from London’s Royal Albert Hall. In New York photographers labored 10 days to transform a 100-foot roll of microfilm into 252 pages of orchestral score.
First performance rights for the Western Hemisphere were secured by the National Broadcasting Company, which maintained the NBC Symphony as its house orchestra. It had been formed expressly for Arturo Toscanini, but Leopold Stokowski, of recent Fantasia Walt Disney film fame, was also under contract to conduct it in the Maestro’s absence. Since Stokowski, a champion of Shostakovich, lobbied NBC to pursue the rights to the Seventh’s premiere in the first place, he wrote Toscanini requesting that he yield the broadcast to himself. It was Toscanini’s orchestra, however, and he exercised his right of first refusal. He studied the score and pronounced it “magnificent.”
Having been beaten by fascist thugs in Bologna in 1935 for refusing to play the fascist anthem at his concerts, he had never conducted thereafter in his native Italy. “Don’t you think, my dear Stokowski,” he wrote back, “it would be very interesting for everybody, and yourself, too, to hear the old Italian conductor (one of the first artists who strenuously fought against Fascism) to play this work of a young Russian anti-Nazi composer.”
Toscanini set to work on the daunting 252-page score (which with separate orchestral parts was multiplied tenfold to some 2,500 pages). Nearsighted, but too vain to wear glasses while conducting, he committed the entire work to memory. NBC increased his orchestra from its normal 94 to 110 instruments. On Sunday, July 19, announcer Ben Grauer introduced the broadcast by reading a radiogram from Shostakovich to Toscanini: “You will convey to the public of democratic America the concepts I have endeavored to embody in the work.” Edward C. Carter, president of Russian War Relief, told listeners they were about to hear “a symphony written within range of gunfire.”
Toscanini mounted the podium in NBC’s Studio 8-H to give the Shostakovich Seventh a brisk reading of 72 minutes. The studio audience “jumped up and cheered,” said Time magazine, and Toscanini “Iooked as if he had come through the siege of Leningrad.” Critics in general were respectful towards the massive composition. “lt does thunder,” wrote Oscar Thompson in the New York Sun, “and for a particular time of war it thunders very well.” While judging it “far from a work of sustained greatness, Olin Downes in the New York Times allowed that the work “has its great moments.”
Hearing the performance, however, Shostakovich evidently felt it to be a betrayal of his previous confidence. “Everything is wrong,” the composer told a biographer. “It’s a lousy, sloppy hack job.”
During the 1942-43 concert season, the Shostakovich Seventh was repeated more than 60 times in the United States. Serge Koussevitzky led the first American concert performance with the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra at Tanglewood on Aug. 14. Stokowski’s turn finally came in December with the NBC Symphony. “The rich colors, the many passages for singing string choirs, the surging pulse of the music, the enormous climaxes all seemed made for Mr. Stokowski’s particular genius,” wrote Downes in the Times, “and he made the most of them. The performance was gorgeous.”
The most gripping premiere occurred between the Toscanini and Koussevitzky performances. On Aug. 9, nearly a year since the beginning of the siege, the “Leningrad” Symphony was performed in the city to which it was dedicated. It was hardly the same city: after an estimated 620,000 deaths and the evacuation of some 400,000 people via a precarious ice road over Lake Ladoga, barely a million human beings remained within the German siege lines.
Zhdanov and other municipal officials, probably with the encouragement of Stalin, saw the value of music as a morale booster. Using the 14 surviving members of the Radio Leningrad Orchestra as a nucleus, a symphony orchestra was cobbled together from retired musicians and army bandsmen.
Under conductor Karl Eliasberg, their ultimate goal was to work up to the Shostakovich Seventh. Six weeks of rehearsal pushed the musicians to the brink of rebellion, which Eliasberg quelled with a threat to withhold their extra rations.
All was ready for the local premiere, which would take place in Philharmonic Hall and be broadcast over Radio Leningrad. German plans to disrupt the concert with artillery fire were foiled by a counter-barrage from Leningrad’s guns. A full house showed up, with many people dressed in their best, long-unworn finery. The performance was prefaced by the brief announcement that “Dmitri Shostakovich has written a symphony that calls for struggle and affirms faith in victory.”
The Leningraders, many in tears, stood up during the symphony’s finale—an honor generally reserved for Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Another year-and-a-half would pass before the Red Army broke the 900-day siege.
Of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, the Seventh is one of the less-performed today. Its length and occasional bombast probably count against it, though it is dusted off from time to time, often for commemorative purposes.
Valery Gergiev, for instance, incongruously programmed the Seventh for a battlefield concert in South Ossetia during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2008 campaign to detach that province from the Georgian Republic. Listeners may have been confused as to which side was the invader; in the Ukrainian conflict of 2022 there can be no doubt about which side the evil “invasion” theme represents.