Picture for a moment the following scene. It is a hot sunny day in June. A 34-year-old man with pebble glasses, slim of frame, sickly-looking and a nervous chain-smoker, is planning to go to a football match with some friends. He knows the game well, is a qualified referee and once travelled all the way by air to Tblisi to attend an important match. This man is now in his home city, a place in which as a mere teenager he played the piano in a local cinema in order to support his family and finance his own musical studies. He has already written six symphonies, an opera which was denounced as far too modernistic for the public taste and a growing volume of chamber music. And then, quite suddenly, the ultimate tragedy is unleashed on his city in an attempt to wipe it off the face of the earth. This man is Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, known as Mitya to his family; the city is what was then called Leningrad, having previously been Petrograd and before that St Petersburg, or “St Leninsburg”, as the composer liked to call it, and the year is 1941.

Postage stamp depicting Shostakovich with the score to the Leningrad Symphony © Wikicommons
Postage stamp depicting Shostakovich with the score to the Leningrad Symphony
© Wikicommons

Well before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War fear had stalked the land, with Stalin’s purges, show trials and summary executions carrying off millions of Soviet citizens. Shostakovich later recalled that there wasn’t a single family in the city who hadn’t lost someone to the reign of terror, but “you had to cry silently, under your blanket, so that nobody would see.” When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa and began their siege of Peter the Great’s city, which was to last for nine hundred days – the longest in human history – the entire population came together in a united show of defiance, united also in their new-found ability to grieve together.

It is against this background that the events leading up to the writing of the Seventh Symphony need to be seen. At the same time we find ourselves facing a major controversy – the specific circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky’s early death is another such instance – at the heart of which is the disentangling of fact from fiction, and truth from propaganda. Many stories have been told about the genesis of the piece, not least by Shostakovich himself and his many friends, including the poet Anna Akhmatova and Mstislav Rostropovich, and by the man who edited the composer’s own memoirs, Solomon Volkov. In fact, it is possible to see Shostakovich’s whole life and the way he presented himself to the world as one gigantic enigma, which even he was unable or unwilling to resolve.

Are we to accept at face value, for example, the fact that his poor eyesight was given as the reason for the rejection of his attempts to sign up for military service in that fateful summer, or was it because the regime was conscious of his increasing celebrity status and wished to exploit his usefulness in other ways? Are we to believe that what has been called “the invasion tune” in the long first movement was a musical representation of the fascist jackboots marching into the Motherland or, as Volkov records, one of the composer’s many coded attacks on the enemies of humanity much closer to home? To quote Shostakovich here, “It’s not about Leningrad under siege; it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Moreover, most of his symphonies, as he later claimed, were “tombstones”.

Shostakovich on the cover of <i>Time</i>
Shostakovich on the cover of Time
The city survived. Just. Out of a population of 2.2 million, not much more than a million were left. Isaiah Berlin, posted as First Secretary to the British Embassy in Moscow in 1945, likened the landscape to “the aftermath of a forest fire – the few charred trees made the desolation still more desolate.”

Work on the Seventh started on 19 July 1941, the composer taking his manuscript with him wherever he went and whenever he carried out his duties as a volunteer fireman. In July 1942 Time magazine had a picture of him on the front cover, wearing a firefighter's helmet and symbolising resistance to Hitler’s armies. At one point in the original manuscript he wrote “v.t.” (= vozdushnaya trevoga), indicating the moment when an air-raid alarm interrupted his work.

When the musicians of the Conservatory and the Leningrad Philharmonic were evacuated to Tashkent, Shostakovich turned down the chance to leave. Instead, together with many other Soviet composers, he started writing marches and patriotic songs for the front-line troops. By the beginning of September he had finished the half-hour long opening movement, with its quotations from Lehár’s The Merry Widow and the allusions to Ravel’s Boléro, commenting to his friend Isaak Glikman, “That is how I hear war.”

Radio message by Shostakovich, broadcast 20 September 1941 (above): 

"An hour ago, I finished the score of two parts of a large symphonic composition. If I succeed in writing this composition well, if I succeed in completing the third and fourth parts, then it will be possible to call this composition the Seventh Symphony. Why do I announce this? So that the radio listeners who are listening to me now will know that the life of our city goes on as normal. We are all now doing our military duty. Soviet musicians, my dear friends and numerous brothers-in-arms, my friends! Remember that our art is now in great danger. Let us defend our music, let us work honestly and selflessly!"

Eventually, at the end of the month, with three movements already complete, he yielded to official pressure and escaped with his immediate family to Moscow. By this time Hitler was organising a direct attack on the Soviet capital, and so he soon found himself in the company of ballerinas, poets, painters and other composers in Railway Car no. 7 bound for Kuibyshev, the present-day Samara. Here it was, on 27 December, in a cramped two-room apartment and working at a battered upright piano, that he put the finishing touches to his longest symphony. The first page of the manuscript bears the inscription, “To the people of Leningrad”. Originally, as Shostakovich explained in an article he wrote in 1951, the symphony followed a “plot”, with titles for each movement: War, Recollection, The Expanses of my Native Land and Victory. These were later withdrawn.

On 5 March 1942, after 40 rehearsals, the symphony had its première in Kuibyshev by the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, also evacuated there. The concert was broadcast throughout the Soviet Union, as was the case with the first performance in Moscow later that month. There has perhaps never been another instance of a complete work being seized upon as such a powerful symbol of global defiance. The manuscript was put on microfilm and via Teheran, Cairo and Brazil taken to the United States, where on 19 July Toscanini conducted the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. At the Tanglewood première conducted by Koussevitzky on 14 August, the bass drum was played by one Leonard Bernstein. Already in June, in a BBC studio, Henry Wood had given the British première with the LPO.

Dmitri Shostakovich © Wikicommons
Dmitri Shostakovich
© Wikicommons

By far the most moving performance, however, was the one given in Leningrad itself in the bombed-out Great Hall on 9 August. Only about fifteen members of the original Radio Orchestra were left, so all the remaining musicians had to be brought in from retirement or from the ranks of the defending army. Thousands stood in the streets listening to the transmission over loudspeakers. Among the audience were the eleven-year-old Yuri Ahronovitch and the writer Alexander Rozen, who later recalled the shattering effect of that première. “Some people cried because that was the only way they could show their joy; others because they had lived through what the music was expressing with such force; others cried from grief for the people they had lost, or just because they were overcome with the emotion of being still alive.”