Creativity Under Siege

Dmitri Shostakovich on civil defense duty

In its last concert program of the season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a rousing performance of the “Leningrad” Symphony (#7) by Dmitiri Shostakovich. The printed program notes for the concert included the following contextual background by A. Kori Hill:

“Millions of people, over millennia, have created during horrific circumstances.  Shostakovich was one of them, as guns and bombs destroyed his birthplace and the home he and his wife, Nina Varzar, had made for their children. On June 21, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  By July, the city of Leningrad was surrounded and under siege until 1944.  The destruction of the city, murder of over a million people through combat, and horrific living conditions caused by the siege, have led some historians to categorize this event as an act of genocide.

“Sometimes the only thing to do amid such horror is to create. Shostakovich started his seventh symphony in the early stages of the siege.  After he and his family were evacuated in the fall of 1941, Shostakovich completed his symphony for its premiere in March 1942. The composer had told a friend: ‘National Socialism is not the only form of fascism. This music is about all forms of terror, slavery, and bondage of the spirit.”  The radio broadcast of the symphony coincided with the Nazi’s planned celebration of the city’s capture. One of the musicians observed: “They never had their party. Instead, we played our symphony and Leningrad was saved.”

The BSO’s conductor for the evening, James Conlon, referred to these program notes in a brief, spoken introduction to the piece. He noted the irony of the piece’s timing – little did anyone know that in February of 2022 Russian itself would invade the Ukraine and lay violent siege to a number of its cities. He said that some people were calling for a boycott of all things Russian, including their music. He sharply disagreed, and went on to affirm Shostakovich’s intention to present a strong counterpoint to the barbarity of all acts of unprovoked military aggression.

The symphony opens with a simple, insistent march melody that grows in volume, complexity and ferocity which keeps repeating as the symphony unfolds. Some people interpret this march to represent the vast Nazi armies streaming in toward the Russian heartland. My own interpretation is that the growing unfoldment of the march is about the spirit of resistance with which the people of Leningrad met the onslaught. There are many fine recordings of the symphony and the first movement is imminently accessible even to those who aren’t fans of classical music. I heartily recommend it to you as an invitation to listen for the current spirit of indomitable resistance that the brave people of the Ukraine are manifesting on so many fronts.

Shostakovich was no fan of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Early in Shostakovich’s career, Stalin purportedly took offense at a performance of his opera based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Could it be that Stalin couldn’t stomach watching that awful tale of a bloodthirsty quest for power, and projected his discomfort onto Shostakovich? In any event, he had the composer blacklisted for many years. The patriotic fervor aroused by the Leningrad Symphony got Shostakovich back in Stalin’s good graces. But the composer’s comments about his work, quoted above, indicate that the fiery music was inspired by something greater than nationalistic devotion. It’s a strong affirmation of the indomitable human spirit in the face of the cruelest adversity.

John Bayerl


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