AJ Wilhelm for NPR
Conductor Mariss Jansons led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Wednesday in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad."
AJ Wilhelm for NPR
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."
- Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," Op. 60
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons