III The Leningrad
War was all around. I had to be with the people, I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music. From the first days of the war I sat down at the piano and started work. I worked intensely. I wanted to write about our time, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of Victory Over the Enemy.1
Symphony No.7, the Leningrad is a model example of the uncertainty which can surround the meaning of the music of Shostakovich. That the symphony is about the destruction of Leningrad and the trials to which its people were subjected is certain, but the identity of the enemy who caused this destruction has for many years been the subject of much debate and even acrimony among academics. The traditional view, both inside and outside the old Soviet Union, was that the symphony was the product of a patriotic artist rallying his artistic prowess against the enemies of the Soviet state. The conflict that is portrayed throughout the symphony and, particularly in the first movement, was believed to be the war between the USSR and Nazi Germany. The destruction that is wrought is the destruction brought on Leningrad during the siege of 1941 by the advancing German armies.
The view of Shostakovich as a committed socialist was one that helped create the myth surrounding the symphony and was, in many ways, responsible for the international fame that the composer achieved at that time. As a propaganda tool, the symphony was used by the Allies to demonstrate the absolute commitment of the coalition against the Axis powers in every way possible. The score for the Leningrad was committed to microfilm and smuggled to America via North Africa. Its first US performance was to a radio audience of millions under the baton of Toscanini. It was an immediate success and there were over sixty performances in the US alone over the following year. Shostakovich himself appeared dressed in a firefighter’s uniform on the cover of Time magazine in July 1942 and this furthered the beliefs about the composer’s dedication to the Soviet State.
The circumstances surrounding the genesis of the symphony are as heroic as is the music itself. Shostakovich was living in Leningrad at the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941. It is said that he immediately tried to enlist in the army in order to serve his country but was rejected on the grounds of his poor eyesight. He insisted on staying in the city for much of the siege and worked on the symphony there before being evacuated to Kuibyschev where he completed the work in December 1941. The Leningrad, having previously been performed in Kuibyschev and Moscow, had its first performance in its eponymous city on 9 August 1942 while German soldiers still laid siege to the city. The orchestra at this performance included the remnants of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra - many of its members killed on the front line - and any other instrumentalists that could be gathered in the besieged city. The performance was preceded by an intense barrage of German artillery positions surrounding the city so that the performance would go ahead uninterrupted. The orchestra assembled in the bomb-damaged concert hall and their performance was broadcast throughout the city. Shostakovich, denied the chance to fight on the front line with his fellow citizens, provided them with a symbol of their defiance - one which could make them proud of the war-torn and starving city in which they were trapped.
The first movement of the Seventh Symphony was initially conceived as a complete one movement symphony in itself and it was only after playing it on piano for his friend and confidante, Ivan Sollertinsky, that Shostakovich decided to extend it into the four-movement work that is the Seventh Symphony. It is this first movement that contains the most distinct and obvious references to conflict and destruction through thematic interaction. The second and third movements are less specific in relation to the external referents of war and violence although both still contain aspects of conflict. The final movement deals with war in a more abstract manner, and it is only in the final bars that more concrete representation returns, with the restatement of the opening movement’s first theme. The thematic statements and their development in the first movement most readily lend themselves to the sort of varying interpretations to which they have been subjected, both by those with partisan interests and by those who just wished to discover the truth of what the work is about. In relation to the actual specifics of external referents - the extra-musical content - of the work, these are obscured by the lies and deceits of half a century. While the composer initially gave a very specific programme for the movement, this is contradicted by his later statements in Testimony.
[It] tells how our pleasant and peaceful life was disrupted by the ominous force of war. I did not intend to describe the war in a naturalistic manner (the drone of aircraft, the rumbling of tanks, artillery, salvos, etc.). I wrote no so-called battle music. I was trying to present the spirit and essence of those harsh events. The exposition of the first movement (Allegretto) tells of the happy life led by the people … such as was led by the Leningrad volunteer fighters before the war … by the entire city … by the entire country. The theme of war governs the middle passages.2
This is in contrast with his later statements to Solomon Volkov about the content of the Seventh and Eight Symphonies.
Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.3
Even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn’t a single family who hadn’t lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. […] I had to write about it, I felt it was my responsibility, my duty. I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered. I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it.4
Flora Litvinova, a neighbour and friend of the Shostakovich family during their exile in Kuibyschev later recalled his comments on the evening when he first played the reduction of the entire symphony for friends and colleagues.
Later, when Dmitri Dmitriyevich became used to me and began to trust me, he told me directly that the Seventh (and Fifth as well) are not only about fascism but about our system, in general about any totalitarianism.5
The composer is said to originally have planned entitling the movements in the following manner.6
I. War | Allegretto
II. Reminiscences | Moderato (poco allegretto)
III. Russia’s Vastness | Adagio - attacca
IV. Victory | Allegro non troppo
Although he did not write these titles in the final score, he is not known to have abandoned the ideas that gave rise to these titles. The first movement, in particular, is representational in the manner described. Indeed, having listened to the work with these ideas in mind, the conflict of themes and the reworking of these themes simply does not allow for any interpretation of the work which ignores the programmatic aspects of the opening and final movements to be a valid one. This, however, does not help to guide the listener and analyst in finding an interpretation as to what conflicts or persons the symphony refers to.
Some have claimed that the initial idea for the symphony contained a deceit, whereby it could have been presented to the victor of the war regardless of which side that may have been. This reflects the idea that many Soviet citizens initially welcomed the Germans as liberators from Stalinist oppression. The Russians soon realised, however, that the Nazis were just as cruel, if not crueller, than their own political masters and all was thrown into the defence of the city against the invaders. (See thematic discussion in chapter IV.) The more universal aspects of titanic struggle and individual tragedy are, however, unmistakable in the context of the gigantic scale of war and individual savagery that are characteristic of human conflict in the twentieth century. Whatever else the Leningrad is about, it is about war and as such, I feel a detailed analysis of the thematic symbolism and juxtaposition of the materials of the first movement, along with a concurrent discussion of possible meanings is the best way to approach a discussion of the meaning of this symphony.