He had been honored, but he had also been targeted. His life hung by a thread, suspended by the frivolous and vengeful will of Stalin. At times he fully expected to be killed. To him, Nazis and Communists were all cut from the same cloth. He told friends that Leningrad was a city Stalin had destroyed and Hitler had simply finished off. To Shostakovich, oppression was oppression.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975). Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad” (1941)
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.
In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
For this June podcast, Memorial Day has just come and gone, and right on its heels is another memorial, the anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy invasion beginning June 6th, 1944, which led to the end of World War II. It’s a time every year when wars and rumors of wars are circling around us, but more important, it’s a time to remember those who gave everything so that we could enjoy everything.
And so I was thinking of what music might be appropriate, specifically with the Second World War in mind, and actually, there isn’t as much as you might think. Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a masterpiece, but of chamber music, and so it wouldn’t be a fit for the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music. There are other pieces not in the Fleisher Collection: Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time comes to mind, some symphonies of Vaughan Williams, the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was touted as a celebration of Soviet victory in World War II, but the composer would later walk back the war references and generalize it to the spirit of man.
But there’s one no-doubt-about-it World War II symphony, and that’s the Seventh of Dmitri Shostakovich. Dedicated by him to the city of Leningrad, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 is forever a memorial to the siege the city withstood from the Nazis. We’ll listen to it in just a couple of minutes, in a wonderful recording deepened with two ironies: it’ll be a German orchestra we’ll hear, with a Finnish conductor, Finland having lost parts of its country to the Soviet Union.
But even though there’s no doubt that the Seventh is about Leningrad, there is doubt about how much if anything it has to do with the Siege of Leningrad. Hitler double-crossed the Soviets, breaking their non-aggression pact by invading them in 1941, driving right through the Baltic States to Leningrad in September. But we know now that Shostakovich had already been writing music for this symphony before the invasion.
We also know that he told a very few people—friends he could trust—that the symphony wasn’t even about Nazis, but about oppression of any kind. We must remember that Leningrad was, before the Soviet era, St. Petersburg, which is what it is again today. Shostakovich was sensitive to the Soviet clampdown on the arts, and because of threats to him personally through official channels, he was keenly sensitive to this.
He had been honored, but he had also been targeted. He knew that his life hung only by a thread, suspended by the frivolous and vengeful will of Stalin. Shostakovich knew people who had been taken away, never to be seen again. He spent many nights at home waiting for the dreaded knock on the door. At times he fully expected to be killed. To him, Nazis and Communists were all cut from the same cloth. He told friends that Leningrad was a city Stalin had destroyed and Hitler had simply finished off. To Shostakovich, oppression was oppression.
But, the composer was smart, and by dedicating his Symphony No. 7 to Leningrad during the Siege of Leningrad, he was content to have Soviet officials as well as Russian concertgoers assume whatever they wanted to.
Commentators repeatedly refer to the “invasion theme” in the first movement, but the composer never called it the invasion theme. He parodies, in fact, music by Franz Lehár from The Merry Widow, which was reportedly Hitler’s favorite operetta. But at this point and every other in the symphony, signs can be read one way or the other, as jokes on Nazis or as coded taunts of Soviet-controlled life. He even went out on a limb by quoting from his own opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the very work that in 1936 had caused Stalin to denounce him. But in wartime the apparatchiks had other things on their minds, so he could take chances.
Shostakovich had been “rehabilitated,” after all, brought back from denunciation on the strength of his Fifth Symphony, and the Soviets now had a common enemy, the German Wehrmacht encircling Leningrad. The 1942 premiere of his Seventh Symphony was a great success, and American and other performances, made possible by Shostakovich smuggling the microfilmed score out of the Soviet Union, were bringing him to his greatest international fame, which he would enjoy until his death in 1975.
It is a long symphony, well over an hour, and while it had been derided by some critics as overblown and owing too much to other composers, it has regained all of its former popularity. It is a work of outstanding power from one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and knowing the struggle behind what went into it, we are moved by it even more. So, surrounded by thoughts of war, and remembering those who fought and those who are still fighting, let’s listen to it now. On Fleisher Discoveries, Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the Symphony No. 7, the Leningrad Symphony, of Dmitri Shostakovich.
[Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975). Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad” (1941)]
The Symphony No. 7, the Leningrad Symphony, of Dmitri Shostakovich. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony was led by the Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä. This is the Fleisher Discoveries Podcast, and I’m Kile Smith.
Composed in the middle of World War II and dedicated to Leningrad during the awful siege of that city, this symphony may be the strongest work to come out of that war. And whether it is about the triumph of the Russian spirit over the invading German forces, as many thought at the time—after all, Shostakovich was awarded the 1942 Stalin Prize because of this—or it’s a more secret triumph over the Soviet invasion of human freedom, what cannot be doubted is this: Shostakovich took Leningrad and made it into his own personal war on oppression of every kind. And by history’s reaction to the Leningrad Symphony, we can only conclude that Shostakovich has won his war.
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And thanks again for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.