Friday, March 4, 2016

Friday BookReview: Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich


Last year a book was published about Mr. Shostakovich (d. 1975) and the role his music played in the Leningrad siege during WWII: Symphony for the City of the Dead.

Here is part of a reader's review:
"We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth."
In September 1941, Hitler's forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country's capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg). 
So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on. 
In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the Communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazis and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need. 
The symphony would speak when the people feared to; it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich's symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the composer who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them...  
M. T. Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. The book begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich's symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue, the book is framed around Shostakovich's own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the Communist revolution and explores the composer's complicated relationships with his country and the Party. 
Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story -- especially the power of art and music -- as well as a thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling. 

"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..."


Some excerpts from a review of the book in an arts magazine:
The Siege of Leningrad deserves to be remembered for many reasons, perhaps the best reason is an unexpectedly inspiring one: in the middle of unfathomable wreckage and horror, the starving city rallied with a literally death-defying performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. M.T. Anderson’s novelistic history tells the story of the siege of Leningrad and the heroic efforts of one of its native sons to keep it alive... 
After Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and rashly chose to invade the Russian front [June 1941], much of the country was caught off balance. Leningrad, a cultured and elegant city, suffered one horrendous tragedy after another. All the odds were against the likelihood of Leningrad’s survival: the Nazi army attempting to throttle the northern city into submission by means of the siege, Stalin’s initial indifference on account of the longer, bloodier battle to defend Stalingrad, his myopia as a military planner, and the fact that the city’s supply of food and raw materials was blown to smithereens early on, causing an eerily beautiful explosion in the sky. 
Anderson pays close attention to the seething, truly Kafkaesque policies of Stalinism, particularly for the artists and composers forced to live under censorship and constant scrutiny. A culture of paranoia and dread reigned supreme, where every word and deed was susceptible to being used as grounds for arrest and subsequent torture and/or execution. Family members spied on each other, going through their daily lives with forced smiles so as not to appear critical or disapproving of the power-that-be, lest the secret police start asking questions. 
After Stalin stormed out of a badly orchestrated performance of Shostakovich’s opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,' ominous editorials began appearing in the government-backed newspaper Pravda claiming that the anxious young composer might be guilty of the crime of so-called "formalism" and ought to watch his back. Shostakovich was subsequently called in to "the Big House" for questioning. Spending hours protesting his innocence, the interrogator told him to "think harder" and come back the following Monday, which the composer knew would be a death sentence. After an anguished weekend saying his final goodbyes to his wife and family, Shostakovich kept the appointment only to wait for hours in the lobby until he discovered after breathlessly inquiring that his interrogator had been arrested the day before and to please accept the state’s apology for the inconvenience. 
Dimitri Shostakovich was one of the leading composers of Leningrad’s vibrant music scene. His intensity and humble perfectionism established him early as a talent to watch, even though he ambivalently collaborated with some of the most revolutionary of the avant-garde artists of the time... Shostakovich’s music is sensitively and evocatively described, with a particular eye for the composer’s versatility and dry-eyed lyricism...
Against all odds, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was performed by a ragged assembly of Leningrad musicians who were quite literally starving to death, many of whom were barely able to hold up their instruments. The conductor’s hand trembled as he waved his baton. The symphony, a rousing and unsentimental masterpiece, was broadcast as a gesture of encouragement to the devastated people of Leningrad, an act of defiance aimed at the surrounding Nazi army, whose gunfire was echoed in the rhythms of the music itself. The sound of the advancing German army is represented in motifs that repeat, growing more and more intense, leading to a finish that is powerful but ironically not triumphalist, as the era’s official demand for patriotic aesthetics demanded. 
Considering how much was at stake politically, emotionally and militarily for all involved, the performance of the Seventh Symphony should rank highly on the list of greatest musical performances of the 20th Century. In Symphony for the City of the Dead, M.T. Anderson has brought his considerable novelistic skills to re-tell an engrossing piece of history that needs to be remembered...

Check out this video of Mr. Shostakovich at the piano, playing a couple minutes of his famous creation. 
Here is a performance by a Japanese orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

A trombonist for the Minnesota Orchestra, when asked his favorite composer: 
"I enjoy Shostakovich, especially his 11th Symphony... I like the raw power of this work. In general, there is an underlying tension in his music that takes a hold of you. There is a real life essence behind his music."
(In the link, don't miss the five-minute introduction by the host. He includes a clip of the composer speaking of patriotism: "For no musical work can exist without it.")

At his dacha

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