Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad”
- It was completed December 27, 1941 and was written as a heroic symbol of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism invading Russia. It’s been criticized for its often simplistic and bombastic sounds but others argue that was Shostakovich’s way of criticizing Stalin and the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union – simple, childlike, often obnoxious, over the top, and monstrous underneath. (It was also performed in the city during the siege of Leningrad. They shelled the German lines and then broadcast the symphony live across the wire. )
Life and times
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович, 1906-1975) is probably more popularly associated with Soviet Russia than any other composer. He was a child prodigy, but his adult career flourished during Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror, and this influenced his art very directly. In 1936, Comrade Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; although the opera had previously been praised by the Soviet press for its ideological correctness, Stalin quite visibly did not enjoy it. Two days later, an editorial in Pravdacalled the opera “Muddle Instead of Music” and suggested that things “may end very badly” for Shostakovich. In this first prototype of the Communist regime’s new mechanism of cultural control, critics who had previously praised Shostakovich’s work publicly revised their opinions; he lost most of his commissions and performance engagements, and several of his friends and family were soon imprisoned or executed.
Shostakovich’s response was the Fifth Symphony, which he advertised as an apology for Lady Macbeth: “an artist’s creative response to just criticism”. Thus began a series of apparently patriotic compositions to gradually restore his official favor with Stalin and the musical authorities. Most of this work is ignored today, with some exceptions like the wartime Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”). Meanwhile, Shostakovich wrote his most personal feelings into “desk drawer” compositions, mainly piano solos and especially chamber music, not meant for public performance.
Of course the biggest event in restoring Shostakovich’s public reputation was Stalin’s death in 1953, the same day as Sergei Prokofiev’s. Shostakovich ostensibly commemorated Stalin with his Tenth Symphony, and many of his earlier works were finally premiered. In fact, he regained so much favor with the Khrushchev regime (fortunately, Khrushchev had no ear for music that he joined the Communist Party to become General Secretary of the Composer’s Union; by this point, younger composers were happily studying forbidden musical concepts like serialism, and Shostakovich suddenly seemed like an icon of conformity. It’s not clear what was going through Shostakovich’s head, even from his own conflicting accounts, but soon he wrote the Eighth String Quartet – some previous works had been dedicated to friends and family who perished under Stalin, but this one was privately dedicated to himself, a musical suicide note.
Though the quartet trailed off in a signature morendo, Shostakovich survived, turning inward to psychological pessimism and dread for his late period. Despite his conservatism, he influenced a school of younger successors, including Alfred Schnittke.
Even when Shostakovich seemed to be at his most patriotic, did he really mean it? Or did the apparently simple-minded themes sit on a layer of irony, concealing deep commentary on Soviet repression? And were these messages meant to be recognized by audiences while eluding official critics? These allegations are made in a supposed memoir, but historians question its authenticity.
At any rate, Shostakovich’s music is structurally conservative and old-fashioned for the time, official Soviet policy on “formalism” notwithstanding. Nearly all his work is quite clearly and accessibly tonal, with some extensions or tidbits of chromaticism. With fifteen string quartets and fifteen symphonies, often with roughly traditional movement orders, he was certainly one of the most prolific composers of these backward-looking genres in the twentieth century. And backward he did look: he was fond of quoting melodies from other composers or himself, and channeled Bach in his own preludes and fugues. Even his most personal chamber music generally follows the same formal and tonal idioms as his symphonies meant for public consumption.
From Mahler, he took not just orchestration but the concept of the symphony as psychodrama (Boulez: “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler”). His late string quartets show an affinity with Beethoven’s, in much the same respect. He was influenced by many Russian composers, including contemporaries like Prokofiev and Stravinsky as well as the old greats like Tchaikovsky and especially Mussorgsky. Though it’s not immediately apparent to the ear, he counted the Second Viennese School among his strongest inspirations.
- Symphony No. 5, especially the finale, and the 2nd movement (in that order)
- Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement (fantastic 4-minute portrait of Stalin, with the three-note motif reminding one of “KGB”)
- String Quartet No. 8, 2nd movement (tumultuous “whole note = 120” piece with amazingly big sound with lots of DSCH and dissonance and crunchy double stops sprinkled all around, dedicated to ostensibly the victims of fascism, but really himself and his fellow countrymen)
- Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad” (quoted as the longest orchestral crescendo, topping even Bolero, used to evoke the oncoming Nazi army into Leningrad)
But, people seem to never talk about Symphony No. 4, which is my personal favorite.
Scored for a Mahlerian orchestra and stuffed with the most jarring dissonances, it begins with a shocker and closes with a triumph that subsides into a slow death. Indeed, I believe that the ending of Symphony No. 4 is THE MOST CHILLING ending of all time. Nothing tops this… a heartbeat in the timpani + sustained floating c minor chord in the violins + undulating celeste figure that all fades away.
Women’s experience during the siege of Leningrad: Leningrad’s women, 16-45, were mobilized by the thousands. Women were the majority of the half-million civilians who dug anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications and1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The long-suffering women of Leningrad suddenly realized that on them lay the fate not only of their family, but of their city, even of the entire country. Aware of the burden placed upon them to protect their city, able-bodied Leningradian women between 16- and 45-years-old were mobilized in numbers reaching the hundreds of thousands. Women formed the vast majority of the approximately half-million civilians assembled to build anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications along the Pskov-Ostrov and Luga rivers, and 1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The death of men in Leningrad during the war made the siege of Leningrad a woman’s experience. In the face of the men’s absence, women were expected to replace men in the factories, prepare defense fortifications, and protect the city from incendiary bombs, among many other traditionally male duties. All the while, women also fulfilled their traditional responsibilities, such as maintaining home and hearth and preserving societal morality, all increasingly difficult tasks during the severe conditions of the siege. Women managed to assume both roles, all while suffering from starvation, the disintegration of relationships, and alienation from their own bodies. Their experience of the siege illustrates how the ideology of the “new Soviet woman” — woman as man’s professional equal, fulltime worker, loyal Communist citizen, and devoted mother and wife — persisted in the darkest days of the siege of Leningrad.
There are a ton of survivor testimonials on the siege of Leningrad on YouTube.
- The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days. Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation. 750 000 people died, which represented between quarter and a third of the city’s pre-siege population. It was the greatest loss of life experienced by a modern city.
I got 2 minutes into this one before I couldn’t take any more.
As early as the Fall of 1944, Stalin gave orders to prepare legal justification for annexing the Armenian lands seized by Turkey to the Soviet Union. This was not as much an attempt to right a historic wrong, as it was a desire to punish Turkey for being a passive ally of Germany throughout the war. An official document confirming the alliance between Berlin and Ankara was signed on June 18, 1941, just weeks before Germany invaded the USSR. On that day Franz von Papen, the former German chancellor and Fuhrer’s envoy on special assignment, signed the non-aggression and friendship treaty with the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Sukri Saracoglu in Ankara. The treaty was clearly within the context of Germany’s impending invasion of the Soviet Union. Many historians claim that this agreement – just like the Soviet-German Pact of 1939 – included secret protocols containing timelines for the Turkish invasion of the USSR and ensuing division of the Transcaucasus.
Ankara was counting on getting Armenia and South-Western Georgia. Pan-Turkic ideology had returned to the surface. Following the efforts of Azeri immigrant activists, a special committee pursuing the goal of creating a single Turkic state was formed in Erzerum. Not everyone among the Fuhrer’s supporters approved of this scenario. Although the Nazis wanted Turkey as part of their military bloc, Berlin refused to grant all of Ankara’s requests. Saracoglu brought the issue of the Reich’s attitude towards Armenians to the table while negotiating the agreement with von Papen in April of 1939. It was made clear that the likelihood of an agreement with Turkey would increase dramatically, if the Fuhrer were to add Armenians as Semitic people that needed to be killed or deported. Active underground work of the Turkish lobby in Berlin resulted in printing an anti-Armenian article in Der Volkischer Beobachter – the official publication of the Nazi party. The author claimed that the Turks were right, that Armenians originated from Jews and should share their fate. The Armenian community in Germany had to make a monumental effort to convince the Nazi’s main ideologist Alfred Rosenberg that such Turkish propaganda could not be allowed to be officially sanctioned. In the end, Rosenberg gave the green light for the University of Berlin’s Professor Artashes Abeghyan to publish an article in the same paper, proving Armenians’ Aryan, Indo-European roots. To Hitler, his arguments seemed more convincing than the Turks’ allegations.
Returning to Turkish plans to invade USSR, it is important to note that Franz von Papen and the Turkish foreign minister Fevzi Akmak decided that the Turks would invade as soon as Germans defeated Russians at Stalingrad. Ankara was diligent about following its pledges as an ally. In early August of 1942, Turkish military forces approached the Armenian border and started large-scale maneuvers in the area. In his essay “Turkey Deals a Blow to Russia” American historian John Gill writes that Marshall Chakmak was ready to attack with the second and fourth armies, and 14th corps. The third and fifth armies followed immediately behind, with the objective of occupying Armenia and Georgia.
The convincing victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad ruined Turkish plans and put Ankara in an uncomfortable position, to say the least. Joseph Stalin was not going to forgive Turks for making him keep 26 divisions at the Southern border when those troops were desperately needed on the Western front. The Soviet dictator used Armenians to exact his revenge. Soviet Armenia’s administrators and organizations in the diaspora knew that this was a historic chance to win back some of the lost Armenian lands. At the end of 1944, the head of the newly established People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in the Armenian SSR, Sahak Karapetyan, received a directive from Moscow: he was to prepare a historical survey of Western Armenia with legal justification for the Soviet Union’s claims on these territories. Two months later the document was on the desk of the Commander-in-Chief. Sahak Karapetyan suggested three possible scenarios. In the first, only Kars and Ardahan –regions that were part of the Russian Empire until 1914 – were to be returned to Armenia. In the second scenario, the border was to be drawn according to the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. This way the Aleshkert Valley and the city of Bayazet would also become part of Armenia. The third scenario presumed the return of Van, Erzerum, Mush, and Bitlis in addition to the regions listed above. Historians to this day are not sure which plan Stalin approved.