The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall Dmitri Shostakovich's powerful Seventh Symphony was written during the devastating World War II siege of Leningrad. Hear Mariss Jansons lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Conductor Mariss Jansons led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Wednesday in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad." AJ Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
AJ Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie HallWQXR radio

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall

Audio for this story is unavailable.

The Seventh Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich is combat reporting from one of the most devastating events in modern times.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler's army invaded the Soviet Union. By late August the city of Leningrad was surrounded in a siege that would last almost 900 grueling days.

"It is the greatest disaster that has ever befallen any great city, and that includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the contenders," Brian Moynahan, author of Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, told NPR in 2014.

"Something on the order of 1.2 million people died, and the vast majority of them either froze to death or starved to death," Moynahan said. "They promptly ate every cat, rat [and] dog in the city. They were eating any sort of old leather there was around, old handbags were being sold."

This was the atmosphere surrounding Shostakovich as he composed his 80-minute symphony, later subtitled "Leningrad," which the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mariss Jansons brought to Carnegie Hall.

For Shostakovich, the writing came quickly. By Oct. 1 he had completed three of the symphony's four movements. That's when he and his family were evacuated from the city, first to Moscow, where he played on a piano what he composed for fellow composer Aram Khachaturian. Afterward Shostakovich apologized if the music sounded like Ravel's Bolero; he was referring to the snare drum's martial beat over a repeating melody passed to various instruments of an increasingly boisterous orchestra. "This is how I hear the war," he reportedly said.

The family was moved some 500 miles farther east to Kuibyshev (now known as Samara), where Shostakovich completed the symphony on Dec. 27 and where it received its premiere March 5, 1942. More performances in Soviet cities soon followed, including a Moscow concert that same month. By June the music had made it to London — after the 900-page score was transferred to microfilm — and debuted in a Proms concert conducted by Sir Henry Wood.

Arturo Toscanini conducted the first American performance in a live studio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra July 19. The next day a portrait of Shostakovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the caption "FIREMAN SHOSTAKOVICH / Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory." The first Carnegie Hall performances followed in October.

Shostakovich's Seventh was performed more 60 times in the U.S. by the following summer. Michael Steinberg, writing in his book, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, notes that not long after its initial success the expansive and difficult work began to experience a period of neglect.

"It would be dishonest to pretend that it is an unflawed work," Steinberg writes. "But it is one that bears witness eloquently, one that merits a high place in our musical and human experience."

Program:

  • Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," Op. 60

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons

[+] read more[-] less

More From Classical

Ensemble Signal performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Jan. 25, 2019 (Claire Harbage/NPR). Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Ensemble Signal Plays Jonny Greenwood

Watch members of the New York-based group give the world premiere video performances of two recent pieces by Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood.

Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider perform a Tiny Desk Concert on March 6, 2019. Amr Alfiky/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Amr Alfiky/NPR

Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider

Watch what happens when the smoky-voiced jazz singer from Mexico conspires with an adventuresome string quartet for songs steeped in Latin American traditions.

The Calidore String Quartet performs a Tiny Desk Concert on April 5, 2019 (Amr Alfiky/NPR). Amr Alfiky/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Amr Alfiky/NPR

The Calidore String Quartet

The Calidore String Quartet confirms that the centuries-old formula — two violins, a viola and a cello — is still very much alive and evolving.

Carolina Eyck and Clarice Jensen perform a Tiny Desk Concert on Dec. 3, 2018 (Cameron Pollack/NPR)/ Cameron Pollack/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Cameron Pollack/NPR

Carolina Eyck and Clarice Jensen

Carolina Eyck, the first artist to bring a theremin to the Tiny Desk, plays the air with the kind of lyrical phrasing and "fingered" articulation that takes a special kind of virtuosity.

Anthony Roth Costanzo performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Aug. 10, 2018 (Morgan Noelle Smith/NPR). Morgan Noelle Smith/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Morgan Noelle Smith/NPR

Anthony Roth Costanzo

Watch the ambitious countertenor sing music that spans more than 250 years, connecting the dots between David Byrne, George Frideric Handel and Philip Glass.

George Li performs a Tiny Desk Concert on July 31, 2018 (Eric Lee/NPR). Eric Lee/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eric Lee/NPR

George Li

Watch the young Harvard grad dispatch some of the most "knuckle-busting" piano repertoire with uncommon panache and precision.

Yo-Yo Ma performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 25, 2018 (Samantha Clark/NPR). Samantha Clark/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Samantha Clark/NPR

Yo-Yo Ma

Watch the 19-time Grammy winner return to his lifelong passion for J.S. Bach, playing music from the Cello Suites and offering advice on the art of incremental learning.

The King's Singers perform a Tiny Desk Concert on April 19, 2018 (Eslah Attar/NPR). Eslah Attar/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eslah Attar/NPR

The King's Singers

The storied vocal ensemble brings close harmony singing to a diverse set list that includes a Beatles tune and a bawdy madrigal from the 1500s.

Ólafur Arnalds performs a Tiny Desk Concert on July 3, 2018 (Eric Lee/NPR). Eric Lee/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eric Lee/NPR

Ólafur Arnalds

The Icelandic composer is joined by two "ghost" pianists, making mysterious and memorable music at the Tiny Desk.

Back To Top