When a Long, Dark Night Lit up with Music: The Story of the Leningrad Symphony II

The performance of the Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942, was a defiant moment in the city's ultimate survival, a moral victory over the brutality of Nazi Germany and “an extraordinary story of triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable terror”.

This is the second part of a series on the Leningrad symphony. The first can be read here

A characteristic feature of Soviet-era memorials and monuments is the invariably grand scale of their conceptualisation and execution. Whether it is the obelisk at the Park Pobedy memorial complex in Moscow commemorating the routing of Nazi Germany, the statue of St George slaying the dragon located at the obelisk’s feet, or the giant sailor charging at the enemy whom you come across in Budapest’s Memento Park – every single memorial of that period is enormous, massive.

So, upon arriving at the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad one day in June 2017, we were struck by the museum’s somewhat unprepossessing exterior. Everything about the place looked modest, the exhibits as much as the cramped galleries, and nothing quite matched our mental picture of the heroic resistance that Leningraders had put up to the German killing machine.

Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad. Credit: Saint-Petersburg.com

Then one realised that this was not the original siege museum set up soon after the lifting of the blockade (which was nearly 30 times as large as the one we visited); that Stalin had had that establishment destroyed in course of the macabre Leningrad Purges of 1948-50 when most of the leaders of the Leningrad Soviet along with the museum director were executed after summary ‘trials’; and that the new museum collection was put together largely by non-governmental effort only in the late 1980s.

Yet, the museum is definitely worth a visit, if only because, for the enormity of the Leningrad famine of 1941-42 to sink in, one needs to stand before the chilling November 20, 1941, directive of the city council, notifying daily food rations. It set the quota for civilians not classed as manual workers at 125 grams of bread a day, and little else, yielding a calorific value of about 450. Historians have suggested that the real number of calories was closer to 300. Little wonder then that Leningraders died in their thousands every single day of the blockade. And yet, the city was not given up. Even more incredibly, Leningrad managed to organise occasional music recitals even in the worst days of the siege. It was at this museum that we first learnt of the Leningrad premiere of the great Shostakovich symphony No. 7 – the ‘Leningrad Symphony’ as it has come to be known – staged on August 9, 1942. 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75) was a Leningrader. Trained at the Leningrad (then Petrograd) Conservatoire, he was recognised as a child prodigy, and his First Symphony was premiered when he was only 19. Like many of his contemporary artists, however, he had had his share of run-ins with Joseph Stalin’s regime, and as late as 1936, one of his compositions was denounced by the party newspaper Pravda as “muddle, not music”.

After the German invasion though, he was ‘mainstreamed’ again together with many other well-known personalities. Shostakovich started work on his Seventh Symphony soon after the war began, but it was well after he and his family had been evacuated from blockaded Leningrad to Moscow that he could complete, in December 1941, this monumental composition, requiring as it did nearly 100 orchestra hands, ran for over an hour-and-a-quarter, and touched high, repeated crescendos. Its theme – war and the pity of war – resonated powerfully over Europe. It was premiered in Kuibyshev, near Moscow, and later in the capital itself in March 1942 to thunderous ovations. “The Seventh Symphony”, a reassured Pravda now exulted, “is the creation of the conscience of the Russian people”.

The cover of the July 20, 1942 issue of Time magazine.

The journalist/historian Alexander Werth, present at the Moscow premiere, was moved to tears by the Symphony’s evocation of ‘naked evil, in all its stupendous, arrogant, inhumanly terrifying power” sweeping over Russia. The London and New York premieres, in June and July that year respectively, were both sensations. Time magazine celebrated the New York premiere by noting that, “amid bombs bursting in Leningrad, he (Shostakovich) heard the chords of victory”.

There were 62 performances of the Seventh Symphony in the US in the 1942-43 season, with “many of the concerts turning into public demonstrations of support for a second front”, as one historian remarks, referring to the Soviet Union’s repeated requests to her western allies to open a second, European front in the War so that the Nazis were obliged to divert a part of their gargantuan resources away from the Russian front.

Early in April, the Leningrad city arts department also started planning for the Seventh Symphony’s Leningrad premiere. Clearly, the odds against the project were quite overwhelming. The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra had already been evacuated, and the only other ensemble of any worth left in the city equipped was the Leningrad Radio Orchestra under conductor Karl Eliasberg, a friend of Shostakovich’s from their Conservatoire days.

That orchestra was already in a shambles, a starving city at war having exacted a severe toll on its members. It had stopped performing in December 1941 and, of the Orchestra’s original 40-odd members, only 15 were still alive, the others having succumbed either to starvation or to enemy fire at the front. The survivors were all at varying stages of ‘alimentary dystrophy’, as emaciation from acute hunger was referred to in current officialise, and were either in hospital or sunk in deep despair in their gloomy homes.

Eliasberg himself barely hobbled around with a walking stick, dropping in on his comrades and trying to rouse them to what really looked like an impossible mission. He had thinned so much that the slightest strain exhausted him completely, and he had to be provided with a bicycle so that he could move around. Appeals were broadcast over the radio and through posters requesting additional musical hands to help out with the performance, and the services of both civilian volunteers and members of army bands were enlisted. The overwrought city administration, fighting  crippling food shortages, managed to somehow squeeze out a few extra grams of rations for the performers.

And yet, things were so desperate that, even as the rehearsals began, three performers died one after another. An official note recorded how “the first violin is dying, the drum died on the way to work, the French horn is at death’s door…”

The symphony’s 252-page conductor’s score was flown into the besieged city under cover of darkness, and the performers were required to laboriously copy out their individual portions of the score. The first rehearsal, held in the Radio Orchestra’s icy studio that had no electricity yet, lasted barely 15 minutes, because the 30-or-so musicians present could not cope with it any longer. One trumpeter, unable to produce a single note, wept as he apologised to Eliasberg. Fresh appeals went out for replacements. The commander of the Leningrad Front, General Leonid Govorov, permitted  the recall of some potential performers from the front lines as substitutes. The makeshift orchestra initially rehearsed some smaller pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korasov, offered some recitals in April and May, and then moved on to take up the Seventh Symphony.

Scratchy as they were, the Shostakovich rehearsals continued, gathering pace as July arrived, but only one full-length rehearsal of the entire symphony could be attempted before the premiere. Eliasberg was as a man possessed, pushing his colleagues relentlessly to do better, giving no one any quarters, whatever their personal circumstances. His arms shook as he raised them to conduct, but he carried on nonetheless. Others looked at him and did their best, too.

Finally, the day of the concert arrived, and the Grand Philharmonia Hall was chock-full of listeners so scrawny that their clothes looked like hanging on  coat-hangers. It was the evening of August 9. Was the date a deliberate choice made keeping Hitler’s ‘Astoria banquet’ in mind? Every existing account of the day suggests so, though no official record is available to bear this out. (In any case, most such records were meticulously destroyed.)

But there remained the obvious question of a possible German bombardment of the concert, and General Govorov needed to address that question. His answer was Operation Squall, a violent spell of bombing of the German artillery positions, identified with pin-point accuracy through weeks-long intelligence operations. A little before the concert was to open, 3,000 high-calibre artillery shells were spattered over enemy guns in a vicious torrent of fire, lulling the Germans into inactivity for the evening. Then, the first notes of the Seventh Symphony rang out even as the lights came on inside the concert hall.

Survivors of the August 9, 1942, orchestra get together with Shostakovich on January 27, 1964, the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad siege. Credit: Author provided

To make sure that the music could be heard across the city, loudspeakers were placed at street-corners, city squares and parks. Govorov’s masterstroke was to strategically place speakers near the German lines as well, so that the enemy also listened as the symphony played out. The General is known to have told the conductor after the concert: “We played our instruments in the symphony, too, you know”. He was not exaggerating, surely.

The quality of the performance was somewhat ragged, as could have been expected, but the atmosphere was simply electric. “Some wept”, the historian Anna Reid quotes a woman in the audience recounting later, “because that was the only way they could express their excitement, others because they had lived through what the music was now expressing with such force, many because they were grieving for those they had lost, others because they were overcome with the mere fact of their being present here in the Philharmonia.”

During the final movement, everyone stood up, because they found it impossible to listen sitting down. They kept standing as the concert ended, as wave after wave of ovation swept over the artists, who could not hold back their tears themselves. A little girl went on stage, presenting to Eliasberg a little bouquet of fresh flowers, a miracle in a city ravaged by war and death. The Seventh Symphony, henceforth called the Leningrad Symphony, had breathed new life into weary souls like nothing else could perhaps have done. It became a defiant moment in Leningrad’s ultimate survival, “an extraordinary story of triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable terror”.

“(T)he whole city had found its humanity… in that moment, we had triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine”, as Eliasberg himself was to reminisce later. If his was a partisan view, every memoir of the evening sees the concert as a moral victory, a prelude to the actual victory over Nazism. “The besieging Germans”, Anna Reid writes, “hearing the music ring out from loudspeakers across no-man’s-land, are said to have realised at that moment that the war in the East would never be won…” Years later, after Germany had been partitioned, a group of East German tourists to Leningrad sought Eliasberg out in his retirement. A few of them, who had fought at the Leningrad Front and remembered the concert, told Eliasberg how some of them had wept as they listened. They had been reminded of home. They also realised the futility of their own efforts.

Much as we would like to remember August 9 for the Leningrad Symphony and the Quit India movement, both emblematic of humankind’s capacity for defying brute force and even death, we also need to not forget August 9, 1945.

Whether Nagasaki was really necessary is a debate that will continue to swirl around seminar-rooms and lecture-halls everywhere for many more years. But if we can set aside for a moment questions of military strategy and political expediency,  we will still have to contend with the chilling fact of a bustling, throbbing human community simply vaporising  in the blink of an eye, leaving behind it mountains of rubble and ash alone. August 9, 1945, has in fact burnt into our collective memory and it will continue to haunt mankind in the future. It is only the simple, unselfconscious courage and common human decency that ordinary people bring to their everyday lives that can act as a counterpoise to such memory.

Indeed, if we are to keep our faith with the continuity of man’s life on earth, we need to keep looking back to episodes such as that of the dark August night in Leningrad which lit up with music even as death rained down from the sky. That will hopefully teach us how not to allow a repeat of Nagasaki.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator of poetry. He can be reached at [email protected].