Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony Was a Defiant Counterblast to Nazi Aggression

Performed in a city under siege, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony symbolized popular resistance to the Nazi invasion. A complex work with several layers of political meaning, the symphony was a high point of twentieth-century classical music.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1954. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Dmitri Shostakovich intended his Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the “Leningrad,” to depict the experience of his beloved home city under the desperately cruel conditions of the Nazi siege in 1941–42. In April 1942, Shostakovich had the score of the symphony copied onto microfilm, placed in a protective tin box, and flown to Tehran. From there, it travelled by car to Cairo and then by plane to South America before finally reaching the United States.

Before the score had even arrived, two contemporary titans of classical music, the conductors Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski, were vying for the privilege of conducting its US premiere. Toscanini won out, and approximately twenty million people listened to his performance of the symphony, broadcast live via radio in July of that year. Many celebrated the music as the voice of a people at the sharp end of the fascist menace.

In August 1942, the symphony finally received its first performance in the besieged city of Leningrad itself. A military plane had to be deployed to bring the score into the city. By that time, the membership of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra had been reduced to just fifteen people, with the rest either engaged in the fighting or dead. The surviving musicians were emaciated, like most of the city’s population, but the Soviet authorities granted them extra rations for the performance.

To fill out the rest of the large orchestra needed for the symphony, scouts went looking for any other musicians who were available. When the day came for the performance itself, the Red Army bombarded Nazi artillery positions around the city to ensure there would be no interruptions from the noise of attacks. Government officials set up loudspeakers around the city to relay the performance to the rest of the population — and toward the German positions.

Music With a Message

The Leningrad Symphony wasn’t merely a creative work about the war. The Soviet government immediately deployed it as a cultural weapon in the ongoing struggle against Nazism. While many composers are embarrassed by the political context or resonances of their music, Shostakovich often used his work to convey political messages. However, those messages could often be multilayered, with meanings that weren’t as obvious as they might seem.

Once the siege began, he immediately tried to sign up for military duty, but the army rejected him on medical grounds. Instead, he volunteered as a fireman to help put out the fires caused by German attacks. He also appeared on film and over the radio, with the sound of bombs falling in the background, to inform fellow Leningraders about his progress in writing the symphony dedicated to the city, and to play excerpts from it on the piano. He had absolutely no qualms about his work being used to aid resistance to the Nazis.

The effects of war severely interrupted his writing of the symphony. Shostakovich finished the first three movements in fairly quick succession in September 1941, while he was still in Leningrad, but it was not until December that he completed the final movement. In the meantime, he and his family had been evacuated to the city of Kuibyshev (now known as Samara), losing most of their possessions and food supplies along the way.

Letters to his friend Isaak Glikman frequently mention the privations of this existence, along with grim lists of friends and colleagues who died in Leningrad. At the same time, he describes the almost universal enthusiasm for the symphony as it received its first performances in Kuibyshev, Novosibirsk, and Moscow.

However, this initial popularity waned after the war was over. Many critics and fellow musicians have subsequently looked down on the symphony, accusing Shostakovich of having resorted to banal effects. Even fans of his music often express some embarrassment about the piece.

Much of the criticism takes aim at the first movement’s middle section, said to depict the terrifying approach of an army on the march — the so-called invasion theme. The rhythm is plodding, with what sounds like flourishes from a marching band sounding off. The symphony repeats this passage no fewer than twelve times, with the orchestral color and volume increasing until it finally reaches an apogee of screeching bombast, before collapsing in on itself in manic terror.

Shostakovich closely modelled the compositional technique here on Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (1928). Just a few years later, his fellow modernist composer Bela Bartok included a scathing satirical quote of this theme in his Concerto for Orchestra (1945). Perhaps a good way to appreciate this “invasion theme” would be via Leonard Bernstein’s instruction to an orchestra during a rehearsal of the piece: he told them to make it sound stupider. The heavy and banal quality of the music, coupled with its insistent and growing bombast, captures both the immense violence and the profound mediocrity of fascism.

Deceptive Simplicity

A large part of the disdain for this first movement, and the symphony as a whole, stems from a snobbish attitude that it is simply too cinematic: in other words, it is crudely descriptive at the expense of having sufficient integrity as a piece of music in its own right. The first thing to say in response is that Shostakovich always resisted such a rigid distinction between “high” and “popular” forms of music — rightly in my view. Many composers have produced remarkably inventive and sophisticated music for film, such as Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Miles Davis — not to mention Shostakovich himself, who wrote scores for more than thirty movies, spanning almost his entire working life.

Secondly, it is not true that the Seventh Symphony lacks symphonic structure and complexity. The “invasion theme” actually begins innocuously, and at times somewhat lightheartedly. It is only through musical development that it gradually acquires its terrifying character. The theme then returns in a ghostly, spectral way at the close of the movement.

As such, it cannot be reduced to a crude depiction of a military invasion. Shostakovich works on it in highly musical ways. The fact that this music can also evoke, in a very direct way, the violence of war testifies to his creative genius.

While the outer movements of terror and eventual victory give at least the appearance of a straightforward narrative, the two inner movements present something much more complex. Shostakovich placed layers of meaning upon one another here. In the composer’s original program note, he describes the second movement as a representation of images of the happy life enjoyed in the USSR before the war.

This seems perverse: after all, these were the years of the Great Terror during which the Soviet state persecuted millions of its citizens, shooting them on trumped-up charges or dispatching them to prison camps in Siberia. The victims included friends of Shostakovich, such as the actor and director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and his patron, the Red Army commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The government press had denounced Shostakovich himself in 1936, accusing him of deviating from the doctrine of socialist realism and warning that “things would end badly for him.” For several years in the late 1930s, the composer kept a packed suitcase by his front door in anticipation of being taken away one night by the NKVD secret police.

However, even without knowing about his personal experience, it is hard to take Shostakovich’s description at face value when listening to this movement. To be sure, it begins with a lighthearted, lilting theme, suggestive of dancing and other frolics, soon accompanied by a wonderfully romantic tune in the woodwinds. But halfway through, out of nowhere, the opening theme transforms into something march-like and speeds up into a manic frenzy. Dissonant chords and shrieks abound, and the dance becomes demonic.

Stylistically, this bears all the hallmarks of the music of Gustav Mahler — which Shostakovich greatly admired — where happiness and sadness, tenderness and cruelty, the sublime and the banal are all pressed together. For Mahler, this was partly intended to conjure up a society in decay. With Shostakovich, it became a way of reflecting the tortured ambiguities of a more “peaceful” life that had existed before the war, yet was itself a time of horrors.

Victory Over Darkness

The third movement seems to fit much more closely with Shostakovich’s original description, evoking the beauty of Leningrad at twilight. It begins slowly and with a sense, perhaps, of nostalgia — echoes of the city it once was. The middle section sees the return of violent elements from the first movement, while the third and final section essentially repeats the first.

This time, however, the music seems more tragic than nostalgic. The subtle shifts in mood and meaning of these inner movements, and the return of themes from earlier in the symphony in altered forms, give the lie to those who believe that the work is simplistic or purely descriptive.

The final movement, subtitled “Victory,” begins very quietly in C minor, a key that feels both remote and close to the symphony’s home key of C major — a result in musicological terms of being “parallel keys.” The melody matches this atmosphere as it slowly builds into a march that moves us “outdoors” again and promises resolution. The harmonic and thematic tension creates a battle, which is more evenly matched than what we heard in the first movement — a real contest, rather than a battering by an invading force.

This battle seems to exhaust itself. Instead of heading closer to resolution, Shostakovich takes us into the more remote key of G-sharp minor, and a mood of loss and being lost takes over. The register sinks lower into the bass. It is at this point that we finally arrive at C major. However, because it is so low and quiet, it is not immediately obvious to the ear that we have indeed arrived at the home key.

The music slowly rises in pitch, the orchestral forces gather and grow, the intensity builds. This passage, which lasts for several minutes, is genuinely thrilling, edge-of-seat stuff. There are moments here when the growling basses or exposed violins in the higher register suggest that clouds may be gathering once more, and we may not make it. Suddenly, the brave, hopeful theme that opened the whole symphony more than an hour earlier returns and conquers all.

I find this finale to be one of the most intensely moving endings of any symphony, both because of the way in which it caps the whole musical journey of the piece and because of its expression of hope during the “midnight of the century.” That phrase comes from Victor Serge, who coined it to describe a moment in which Stalinism had succeeded in destroying the last vestiges of the Russian Revolution, while the forces of fascism appeared unstoppable in their brutality.

In 1979, the Russian writer Solomon Volkov published a book which he presented as the memoir of Shostakovich, dictated to him in the 1970s. In Testimony, which is now largely discredited, Volkov has Shostakovich describing the Seventh Symphony as a protest against the crimes of Stalin just as much as those of Hitler. While this may or not be what the composer actually said, there are good grounds for believing that he wrote or at least conceived much of the music, including the invasion theme, before Operation Barbarossa began. This suggests that we cannot reduce the meaning of the symphony simply to a depiction of events in summer 1941 and afterward.

Shostakovich in Context

It is also worth considering the place of the Seventh Symphony alongside Shostakovich’s other symphonies of the period. He had to withdraw the Fourth Symphony, composed in the mid-1930s, before its premiere in the wake of Stalin’s bloody purges and official condemnations of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District as “formalist,” and thus anti-Soviet. The Fourth Symphony represented a major development in Shostakovich’s style, building on the acerbic modernism of some of his earlier works, but also taking on the stylistic ambiguities that he inherited from Mahler.

Now in serious physical danger from the authorities, Shostakovich rapidly composed his Fifth Symphony (1937), which he supposedly described at the time as “a Soviet composer’s response to justified criticism.” This work is far more accessible than the Fourth Symphony, and indeed has turned out to be probably his most popular work to this day. The enthusiastic response to this work from audiences, critics, and, most importantly, from the Soviet authorities helped engineer his rehabilitation, and probably saved him from ending up in the camps or worse.

And yet the heroic, journeying narrative of the Fifth Symphony has a highly ambiguous finale, whose bombastic triumphalism appears forced, and perhaps more terrifying than heroic. Much of the Seventh Symphony echoes this ambiguity. One way of understanding its “message” is to listen to what lies beneath the surface, whether it sounds at first hearing like just a march, or a dance, or a victory.

Shostakovich’s much-neglected Sixth Symphony (1939) is a very strange work, and one that is very hard to decipher, either in purely musical terms or in its wider meaning. It lacks a conventional opening movement — leading scholars describe the symphony as a torso without a head — and begins instead with an extended slow movement that is very introspective in character, followed by two very short and bizarrely jolly ones.

This may represent Shostakovich’s retreat into a very private mode of expression amid the horrors of the purges, including the persecution and murder of many friends and colleagues. He was to adopt a similar style of writing at many times later in life, when cultural expression in general, and his music in particular, came under attack.

The Eighth Symphony, composed in 1943, is almost unremittingly tragic and terrifying, lacking the hopeful resolution of the Seventh. Musically, it is also much more challenging, and it perplexed many listeners and critics when it was first performed. However, perhaps because of the enormous worldwide fame that Shostakovich had achieved as a result of the Seventh, and because the Soviet authorities were directing all efforts at the time toward a final victory over the Nazis, the official criticisms were muted.

The biggest surprise of all the wartime symphonies is the Ninth (1945). The auspicious number, long associated with Beethoven’s great final symphony, and its composition in the year of victory, led many — including Stalin — to expect a grandiose paean imbued with a nationalist spirit. Instead, it is one of his shortest symphonies, and playful to a degree that at times seems rather silly. There is music here that sounds like a raspberry being blown.

Much like the Eighth, but in a diametrically opposed way, the last wartime symphony composed by Shostakovich undermined the expectations of audiences and authorities alike. Very soon afterward, Shostakovich became the focus of renewed attacks on formalism. Soviet officials largely banned his works for years, until after the death of Stalin. The Seventh Symphony thus has a unique place in Shostakovich’s wartime works, representing a moment when he brought together his remarkable ability to write complex music, layered in multiple ways with extramusical meaning, and yet managed to achieve a very direct and moving effect on the audience.

To the extent that he may have already conceived some of this music before the Nazi invasion, it is clear that he worked hard to complete and promote the symphony to provide a much-needed morale boost to a city — and a country — on the verge of a tragedy far greater than what had already befallen them during the Stalinist purges. This symphony marks a highpoint, increasingly rare as the twentieth century progressed, in which classical music could be popular and political, but also full of musical complexity and integrity.