Thanks to historian Amanda Vickery and Radio 3 presenter Tom Service for an outstanding documentary on BBC 2 last night in which they told the story of the siege of Leningrad and the symphony that Dmitri Shostakovich began to compose while working as a fireman during the German blockade and bombardment. Completed after his evacuation and dedicated to the besieged city, a group of starving musicians who could barely carry their instruments assembled to perform the Seventh Symphony there on 9 August 1942. It’s one of the great stories of human endurance and of the power of music as a symbol of resistance and humanity. The film truly did it justice.

Dmitri Shostakovich working as a fireman in Leningrad, 1941
Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941 serving as a fireman during the siege of Leningrad

In telling the story of the siege that lasted 900 days and resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians – one of the longest in history and possibly the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city – the baton passed back and forth between Vickery and Service. While Tom Service told how Shostakovitch – trapped in the city and serving as a fire-fighter – came to compose the symphony, and analysed its musical power, Amanda Vickery explored how Leningrad’s citizens had suffered persecution under Stalin’s reign of terror before Hitler’s forces began to bombard and blockade the city.

Leningrad seige Olga Kvade

It was when Vickery presented her account of the siege itself, the people of Leningrad starving to death in their thousands, that the film gained its extraordinary power as she met survivors and sifted through diaries and photographs. Perhaps more than any male presenter might have done, Amanda Vickery showed real empathy with her interviewees, especially Olga Kvade who as a teenager worked at an orphanage where children were left by their starving mothers who went home to die, hoping their child might live.

Leningrad seige orphans
Orphans of the Leningrad siege

I have rarely seen such moving testimony as that given by the indomitable Kvade, now in her nineties, but with a crystal-clear memory of the ordeals she suffered alongside her fellow-citizens during the siege. Her father and grandfather both died at the beginning of the siege, and she recalls her 18th birthday in January 1942, when she put her grandfather’s body on a sledge and took it away.

That was during the winter of 1941–42, the coldest anyone could remember, when the city endured extreme famine and the only food available was a ration of 125 grams of bread, of which more than half consisted of sawdust and sweepings from the bakehouse floor (Vickery showed us just how small a 125 gram piece of bread is). Kvade remembered going upstairs from the orphanage one day to the unoccupied, unheated upper floor. She saw a Christmas tree with what looked like parcels under it; moving closer, she realised they were dead children who could not be buried because the morgue was full.

Famine victims during the Leningrad siege
Famine victims during the Leningrad siege

Meanwhile, Tom Service explored the perilous line walked by Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1930s as Stalin, who always paid close attention to the arts, took an intense dislike to the Bolshoi Theatre production of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 which he had attended. In an article in Pravda a couple of days later (probably written by Stalin), the work was condemned as ‘Muddle instead of music’. His son told Service an incredible story of Shostakovich being summoned to NKVD headquarters – almost certainly to face exile to the gulag or death by firing squad as many of his musician and composer friends had – only to find that the official he had been ordered to present himself to had been shot the night before.

This provides the context for the well-known story of how Shostakovich, serving as a fire-fighter in Leningrad during the early months of the siege, began to compose the symphony that he eventually finished after his evacuation from the city. The world première of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony, dedicated by the composer to the city of Leningrad took place on 5 March 1942 in the opera house in Korishev, the temporary capital of the USSR.  Then, as Leningrad starved, the 7th Symphony was performed around the world. When it was broadcast live by the BBC, the unprecedented decision had to be taken to dispense with the chimes of Big Ben before the evening news because of its length.

Then, at last, the symphony came home to the city that had inspired it when the conductor Karl Eliasberg almost literally resurrected the Leningrad Radio Orchestra to perform the Seventh Symphony on 9 August 1942.

Leningrad seige musicians
Musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra about to perform the 7th Symphony

When the score of the symphony was flown to Leningrad in July 1942, Eliasberg thought, ‘We’ll never play this.’ After all, the symphony was 78 minutes long and written for an orchestra of more than a 100 –  surely too physically-demanding for starving musicians, some of whom could barely carry their instruments or climb the stairs to the first floor rehearsal room. In a story almost beyond belief, Service told how Eliasberg, learning that the drummer Zhavdet Aydarov had died, went to the city mortuary to pay his respects. Leaning close to the body, the conductor heard the drummer breathing.

Aydarov was saved and, restored by extra rations, went on to play the first movement’s crucial ‘invasion theme’, in which the snare drum repeats a two-bar pattern 171 times. On 9 August 1942, a starving handful of musicians performed in the city’s Philharmonic Hall for an audience who were also ravaged by deprivation.

For the documentary, the BBC asked the conductor Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitri Shostakovich’s son, to conduct a special performance of the Leningrad symphony by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in the same location as the original concert. In the audience were the survivors whose recollections help make the film so powerful. Olga Kvade recalls that she was ashamed to be seen in such illustrious surroundings: her hands were dark green from weeding city plots where vegetables were being grown:

The chandeliers were sparkling, It was such a strange feeling. On the one hand it couldn’t be possible – the blockade, burials, deaths, starvation, and the Philharmonic Hall – it was just so incredible. But then Eliasberg came out, the orchestra stood up, and they played. Everyone was starving, but they were all dressed up in bow ties.

For some reason I immediately thought of Papa. Papa loved good music. He himself played and he’d been teaching me. And I remembered how he would take me to the Philharmonic Hall, and it seemed to me that somehow he was listening too. On the one hand I wanted to cry but at the same time there was a sense of pride.

The only thing we feared was that the Germans would start bombing us. I was thinking, ‘God, let us listen to it to the end.’ They were shelling us but there was this feeling of superiority . . . Damn you! We have an orchestra. ‘Damn you, we have an orchestra! We’re at the Philharmonic Hall so you Germans stay where you are!’ We were surrounded by Germans. They were shelling us, but there was this feeling of superiority.

‘Some critics were sniffy about the musical merits of the Seventh’, says Tom Service. ‘But its true value was always going to be symbolic. It reminded the West that the Russians were not only a cultured people – they were courageous, too.

Shostakovich included: when his son is asked what kind of a man he was, his immediate response is, ‘courageous’.

He was kind and reserved. Looking at him you would think him a timid, unassuming little man, but he had inner strength.

He needed his strength, because it wasn’t over. After the war Stalin played down the heroism of a city he had always mistrusted, and by 1948 Shostakovich was in disgrace again and his work was banned once more.

Tom Service writing about the Leningrad Symphony in the Guardian concludes:

Despite the critics, it can’t be silenced in our concert halls, either. The “Leningrad” Symphony remains a uniquely resonant revelation of a chapter in 20th-century history. But it finds new meanings, interpretations and relevance in the 21st century. The symphony doesn’t just belong to the city to which it is dedicated – it’s ours, too.

Shostakovich meets Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964
Shostakovich meets Eliasberg and the 1942 players at a reunion  performance in 1964

See also

900 days: The Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade is a superb Dutch documentary with English subtitles:

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9 thoughts on “Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: BBC at its best

  1. I haven’t seen this doc yet but have heard various accounts of this remarkable music’s creation and performance. It always makes me think too of the performance of Verdi’s Requiem in Terezin, told in the film Defiant Requiem. The Dies Irae in that context is just overwhelming – as is Shostakovich’s symphony.

  2. I’m sorry I missed that. I saw one on TV some years ago about the seige, and was left silenced by the horror of it all, but also deeply moved by the resilience of the people. It was also disturbing and very sad to learn (in yet another documentary, another time) that, while the children born to those who had suffered so greatly seemed miraculously unaffected, the children born to that second generation have had many birth defects.

    I

  3. I enjoyed the film very much and your article did it justice, but l was surprised there was no reference to the first movement having been completed before the siege even began. Perhaps that didn’t suit the editorial focus.

    1. As I noted in the post, they did state that he began to compose the Symphony before he was evacuated. But you’re saying he began it even before the siege started?

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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