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Amid Hunger And Cold, An Unforgettable Symphony Premiere

Citizens of Leningrad collect water from a broken main in the winter of 1942, during a blockade of the Russian city by Nazis. (AP)

In early 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich was nervous. He was one of Soviet Russia's most brilliant composers, but he had fallen out of favor with the ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin.

He'd been forced to denounce several of his own pieces of music, and some of his friends and family had been imprisoned or killed. He knew the same thing could happen to him.

"He was in a very cat-and-mouse position with Stalin and with the NKVD, the secret police," writer Brian Moynahan tells NPR's Arun Rath. "He could have been taken at any stage. He became withdrawn and if not frightened, certainly justifiably nervous."

The composer, then living in Leningrad, was trying to write his seventh symphony. He began to toy with themes of a dark, menacing presence.

Then came other great monster of the 20th century: Adolf Hitler. For a while, the relationship between between Russia and Germany was fairly calm; they'd signed a non-aggression pact.

"Suddenly, in one day — one moment — at 3:50 in the morning of June the 22nd, 1941, everything changes. The Nazis invade," Moynahan says. "The Germans ... were soon besieging Leningrad. And that is when Shostakovich begins to write this great symphony."

That symphony, the siege and the eventual, improbable Leningrad premiere of the work are the subjects of Moynahan's newest book, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony.

He tells Rath that after writing the first several movements, Shostakovich and his family were evacuated. So was the Leningrad Philharmonic. Left behind were millions of civilians, left to starve and freeze in the catastrophic conditions.

When Shostakovich finished his Symphony No. 7, it premiered to international acclaim in Kuibyshev, then Moscow, then London, then New York City. But the people of Leningrad — to whom he'd dedicated the symphony — still had not heard it.

Though most of the city's remaining musicians had fled or died since the beginning of the siege, an orchestra was cobbled together. The score was flown in over German lines. Rehearsals were difficult; musicians frequently fainted from hunger or cold. Three died.

The haggard orchestra premiered the symphony on August 9 — the very date that the Nazis had reportedly planned to hold a victory banquet in Leningrad. The city's defiant act remains one of the most famous performances in the history of classical music.

"There's nothing [like it]. Nothing, nothing," Moynahan says.

Click the audio link above to hear the full interview and get a taste of the symphony (as performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein).


Interview Highlights

On the dire situation in Leningrad

It is the greatest disaster that has ever befallen any great city, and that includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the contenders. You had in the winter of 1941 to 1942, when Shostakovich is writing this symphony — although he's been evacuated — something of the order of 1.2 million people died, and the vast majority of them either froze to death or starved to death. ...

They very promptly ate every cat, rat [and] dog in the city. They were eating any sort of old leather there was around, old handbags were being sold. So you had, I mean, on the absolute edge, a catastrophe.

On the role of music during the siege

Music was extremely important. And it was soon realized that music fed the soul in a way that was extremely good for shattered morale, so a real effort was put into music in this dying city. But gradually all that winds down as fewer and fewer musicians are left alive to play — literally.

And then the idea, when Shostakovich finally finishes his seventh symphony in February 1942, the idea is born that this great symphony must be played in Leningrad, because he devotes it to the people of Leningrad.

The main orchestra, the Leningrad Philharmonic, had been evacuated before the siege began as the Germans were advancing, and all that was left was the [less prestigious] Radiokom Orchestra. And to begin with, there weren't nearly enough musicians left to play. They only had 20 [musicians], because they'd lost something like 70 over the winter.

So in order to achieve it, they withdrew soldiers who were in military bands and so forth, from the front lines [they] were brought back in, and ... Karl Eliasberg, who is the conductor, managed to force them through rehearsals. But they were never fit enough to play it as a whole until the actual premiere.

On the significance of the Leningrad premiere date, August 9, 1942

There was a significance in that Hitler had claimed that Leningrad would fall in August 1942, and indeed people were saying he was going to go for a victory dinner at the Astoria Hotel, the very same place where this conductor Eliasberg and lead members of the orchestra were barely being kept alive. So the fact that there was still this resistance, still this pride that Leningrad as a city had not been broken, at the very time that Hitler said he would finally sweep through it — it's utterly moving.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Dmitri Shostakovich - without doubt one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He is in a way a perfect emblem for the suffering of the Russian people at the hands of two of the 20th century's greatest monsters - Hitler and Stalin.

As a composer in Soviet Russia, Shostakovich lived in fear - praised by the authorities one moment, denounced the next. He never knew when the capriciousness of Stalin might result in his arrest or execution. It had happened to his friends and relatives.

BRIAN MOYNAHAN: He could've been taken at any stage. He became withdrawn and if not frightened, certainly justifiably nervous.

RATH: That's Brian Moynahan, author of the new book "Leningrad: Siege And Symphony." Right before Hitler invaded Russia, things were relatively calm there. Russia and Germany had in fact signed a non-aggression pact and Shostakovich was teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservatory.

MOYNAHAN: And then suddenly, in one day - one moment - at 3:50 in the morning of June the 22nd, 1941, everything changes and the Nazis invade. And Leningrad is more vulnerable and closer to them than most great Russian cities. So it's immediately in danger. And the Germans made huge gains in the early months of the war and were soon besieging Leningrad. And that is when Shostakovich begins to write this great symphony.

RATH: Could you give us just a sense of the human toll - the numbers of dead? Because it's hard to comprehend.

MOYNAHAN: It is the greatest disaster that has ever been fallen any great city and that includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all contenders.

You had in the winter of 1941 to 1942 - when Shostakovich is writing this symphony, although he's being evacuated, too - something of the order of 1.2 million people died. And the vast majority of them either froze to death or starved to death.

They were eating - I mean, they very promptly ate every cat, rat, dog in the city. They were eating any sort of old leather there was around. Old handbags were being sold. So you had, I mean, on the absolute edge a catastrophe.

RATH: Brian, in the midst of all of this suffering, violence and deprivation, music is still very important in the city.

MOYNAHAN: Music was extremely important. And it was soon realized that music fed the soul in a way that was extremely good for shattered morale. So a real effort was put into music in this dying city.

But gradually all that winds down as fewer and fewer musicians are left alive to play - literally. And then the idea when Shostakovich finally finishes his seventh Symphony in February 1942 - the idea is born that this great symphony must be played in Leningrad because he devotes it to the people of Leningrad.

The main orchestra, the Leningrad Philharmonic, had been evacuated before the siege began as the Germans were advancing. And all that was left was the Radiokom Orchestra. And to begin with, there weren't nearly enough musicians left to play it. They only had 20, because they'd lost something like 70 over the winter.

So in order to achieve it, they withdrew soldiers, who were in military bands and so forth, from the front lines - were brought back in. And Eliasberg - Karl Eliasberg, who is the conductor, managed to force them through rehearsals. But they were never fit enough to play it as a whole until the actual premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOSTAKOVICH SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

RATH: And let's talk about that performance in Leningrad. First, it was in August of 1942 and there was some significance to that date.

MOYNAHAN: There was a significance in that Hitler had claimed that Leningrad would fall in August 1942, and had indeed - people were saying he was going to go for a victory dinner at the Astoria Hotel, the very same place where this conductor Eliasberg and lead members of the orchestra were barely being kept alive. So the fact that there was still this resistance, still this pride that Leningrad as a city had not been broken, at the very time that Hitler said he would finally sweep through it - it's utterly moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOSTAKOVICH SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

RATH: And this performance - the annals of classical music are full of symphonic performances that are bizarre. But there is nothing I've read that's like this.

MOYNAHAN: There's nothing, nothing, nothing. If you think of the "1812" - Tchaikovsky, which people say well, what about the "1812." And I say well, what about the "1812?" It was written 70 years after the event. This was written as the event is taking place and played as this event - the greatest loss of life in one city ever recorded. It's played as that takes place. So it has that's extraordinary impact. And I can't think of another piece of music ever that has that.

RATH: That's Brian Moynahan. His new book is called "Leningrad: Siege And Symphony," and it's out now. Brian, thanks very much.

MOYNAHAN: It was absolutely my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOSTAKOVICH SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 7") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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