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Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played

Brian Moynahan's Leningrad: Siege and Symphony brings together the story of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony and that of the siege of Leningrad to inspiring, heartbreaking effect

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony Brian Moynahan

Quercus, pp.558, £25

The horrors of the Leningrad siege — the 900 Days of Harrison Salisbury’s classic — have been pretty well picked over by historians; and meanwhile the story of
Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the improbable circumstances of its composition and first Leningrad performance in August 1942, is well known from the extensive, and still growing, literature on the composer.

But Brian Moynahan’s book is the first to my knowledge — in English at least — to interweave these narratives to any significantly detailed extent. Moynahan is not a musician, and this is not really a book about music. It’s about an event which symbolises and personalises a history that, en gros, is virtually beyond our comprehension — those of us who live peaceful, well-fed, well-warmed, secure lives in a free society unmenaced by tanks on the one hand or secret police on the other.

The technique, if not the scale, is Tolstoyan. Moynahan’s narrative frame — his Borodino — is the German invasion itself, the first part of the siege, the atrocious Russian military failures leading up to the nightmare of the Volkhov pocket, and the barely credible stupidities of the NKVD, who routinely, under orders from Stalin and Beria, shot or imprisoned their own best officers and large numbers of other mostly loyal citizens, at a time when military expertise was in desperately short supply and loyalty under severe threat.

Meanwhile conditions in the city deteriorated to far below subsistence level. The population starved and froze. They were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, eventually even each other. With the outside temperature dropping to minus 35, they huddled in unheated rooms in whatever covering they could find. Corpses lined the streets as they lined the battlefield. It was, somebody remarked, like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad/St Petersburg, was in the city for the first few weeks of the siege, and by the time he was flown out in early October 1941 he had composed the bulk of three movements of his Seventh Symphony. He already saw it as a symbol of the city’s defiance, and in Moscow he told an interviewer: ‘In the finale, I want to describe a beautiful future time when the enemy will have been defeated.’ It had become a Leningrad Symphony in all but name. Its composer had been photographed on the roof of the Conservatoire in a fireman’s outfit hosing down a (non-existent) conflagration. Now, in his absence, Leningraders struggled to concerts played by emaciated, half-dead musicians in freezing halls. Music had become an emblem of that peculiar Russian ability, honed through centuries of repression and hardship and in the end disastrously underestimated by Hitler, to slow down their mental metabolism almost to a standstill and survive like aesthetically tuned cattle in conditions that would drive others to breakdown and insanity.

How else to explain the successful performance of the Seventh Symphony that following August? It was a full-blooded 70-minute work for an orchestra of more than 100, performed by a radio band reduced by death and infirmity to a mere handful of sickly regulars, augmented by military-band players from the battlefront and by whatever extra wind and string players could be drafted in from the city’s dilapidated musical substrata, and directed by a conductor — Karl Eliasberg — who could himself barely hold a baton or stand upright.

Much of this has been described before. But Moynahan’s account is by far the fullest and most compelling I’ve read. He has drawn not only on the extensive English-language literature, but on recently published Russian memoirs and diaries, augmented, according to a somewhat sketchy afterword, by interviews and conversations with blockade survivors, and a certain amount (how much is unclear) of archival rummaging. The terrible beauty of the book is in its anecdotal detail, and the horror is of a kind that makes you weep but at times approaches comedy. There’s the boy who goes with a well-dressed man to his apartment to buy a pair of boots, only to be greeted with the sight of human body parts hanging like meat on hooks, and the man announcing ‘I’ve brought a live one.’ There’s the girl who goes to get her oboe repaired, and when she tries to pay with money, is told ‘Bring me a little cat.’

The battle descriptions are of course atrocious, but the street scenes perhaps horrify more, because soldiers expect to suffer and die, while people going about their daily chores are simply us in another time and another country. For musicians, similarly, Moynahan’s account of the preparations for the symphony performance will ring bells that soon crack. At first the players are barely able to hold their instruments, the wind-players incapable of blowing or even forming their mouths into an embouchure.

Gradually, under Eliasberg’s unwavering moral pressure, they manage to rehearse for short stretches. Now and then a player will simply fall over; or someone will fail to turn up to rehearsal, for the one simple, irreversible reason. The musicians begin to resent the whole process. When one player is late because, he says, he has been burying his wife, Eliasberg snaps: ‘Make sure it’s the last time!’ Yet eventually, at the final rehearsal, it all suddenly comes together, and the performance is an incredible triumph, greeted by a packed Philharmonie with a standing ovation that begins even before the end of the work, as the players falter and the audience urges them on.

The Seventh is hardly one of Shostakovich’s best works. Its crudities, whether or not deliberate, weigh it down; the quality of its material is, to say the least, uneven. But these are effete judgments, made amid the luxury of civilised choice. For Leningraders, and especially those who lived through the blockade (and who still rightly enjoy free transport and other concessions in the city), it remains an icon of their survival, not only of the Nazi onslaught, but also of the mindless, self-defeating Stalinist purges.

This is the meaning of its yearly anniversary performances in the same hall. Brian Moynahan may or may not be right that its Leningrad première (the first performance had been in Kuibyshev five months earlier) was the most moving moment in the history of music. It’s certainly hard to imagine reading his gripping, skilfully woven account without emotion.

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