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Shostakovich and the Music of War
There are few experiences as wonderful as reading a truly enthralling book. Since I finished M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad I haven’t been able to stop singing its praises to my coworkers, family, and friends. Some of whom have even been personally escorted to the checkout counter with book in hand.
Dmitri Shostakovich finished his Seventh Symphony on December 27, 1941 while his home city of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) was still enduring the 900-day siege that would claim the lives of over a million civilians. In fact, Shostakovich wrote much of this symphony while he and his family were still inside the besieged city. The orchestra that performed the Leningrad premiere was made up of what was left of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra and military musicians who were still responsible with the defense of the city by day. The players were weak from starvation and fainted frequently during rehearsals. Three of them even died before the premiere, which was only the second time the musicians had physically been able to perform the work in its entirety. The performance went on despite all of this and with Nazi soldiers just outside the city. This music became a magnificent success and was a rallying cry for the citizens to persevere, to fight, and to live.
M.T. Anderson weaves the very complicated story of Shostakovich with the most even hand I have ever read on the subject. He does not paint the composer as an ardent anti-Soviet radical, as some Western writers do, nor does he portray him as Stalin’s spineless lapdog. Instead, we see a portrait of a great artist who had to make extremely difficult decisions under immense political pressure, and who created music that spoke to millions of people enduring unthinkable horrors.
For more on Shostakovich, soviet music, and Stalin please check out these items from your local library:
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
In 1936, Shostakovich, just thirty, fears for his livelihood and his life. Stalin, hitherto a distant figure, has taken a sudden interest in his work and denounced his latest opera. Now, certain he will be exiled to Siberia (or, more likely, executed on the spot), Shostakovich reflects on his predicament, his personal history, his parents, various women and wives, his children—and all who are still alive themselves hang in the balance of his fate.
In work after work, often composed under crushing difficulty and anxiety, you'll hear how the great composer used a brilliant arsenal of ironic conceits, musical quotes from un-Soviet sources such as American jazz or Jewish klezmer tunes, and other techniques to assert the integrity of his art in the face of totalitarian oppression, and to pay, as he said, "homage to the dead."
Stalin's death in 1953 was the biggest step towards Shostakovich's restoration as a creative artist – finally he could express himself freely! This transition was marked by his 10th Symphony which was written at some point in the early 1950s, and premiered on 17 December 1953, after Stalin had died.
The Fitzwilliam Quartet is English by birth but shows a lot of Russian soul in these works, which were recorded in consultation with the composer. Highlights of the set include the relaxed, folk-flavored No. 1; the tense, autobiographical No. 8, which recalls the terrors of World War II, quotes a lot of Shostakovich's earlier works, and mourns for the "victims of fascism and war"; the contrasts of quiet beauty and fierce intensity in No. 10; and the bold structure of No. 15, Shostakovich's last quartet, in which he looks at death, steadily and without blinking.
Shostakovich’s Sixth and Twelfth Symphonies both had their origins in large-scale projects about Lenin, though the Sixth was eventually to emerge as one of the composer’s most abstract and idiosyncratic symphonies. The long, intensely lyrical and meditative slow movement that opens the work is one of the composer’s most striking. The Twelfth, one of the least played of Shostakovich’s symphonies in the West, became less a celebration of Lenin’s legacy than a chronological depiction of events during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk
Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine directly resulting from Stalin's policies. What drove him toward such ruthlessness? This essential biography, by the author most deeply familiar with the vast archives of the Soviet era, offers an unprecedented, fine-grained portrait of Stalin the man and dictator. Without mythologizing Stalin as either benevolent or an evil genius, Khlevniuk resolves numerous controversies about specific events in the dictator’s life while assembling many hundreds of previously unknown letters, memos, reports, and diaries into a comprehensive, compelling narrative of a life that altered the course of world history.
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