Symphony for the City of the Dead

Terrific read if you want further insight into the challenges of living and creating art under Stalin’s rule.

NY Times review

M. T. Anderson has done wonders with bleakness. His 2002 dystopia “Feed” is an unnerving portrait of an information-overloaded, environmentally ravaged future. “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,” a National Book Award winner set in colonial Boston, follows a boy doubly exploited as an experimental subject and a slave. In “Symphony for the City of the Dead,” his first nonfiction work for teenagers, he takes on one of the grimmest chapters in world history. Following the relentless downward spiral of Soviet society under Stalin’s rule and German assault, he shows how one piece of music played a role that was, to different ears, redemptive, consoling and rousing.

The book, which has been longlisted for a 2015 National Book Award, begins like a suspense movie: A mysterious microfilm is transported from the Soviet Union to the United States “across steppe, sand, sea and jungle” in the midst of World War II. The microfilm contains the score for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, much of which he wrote during air raids in his native city. The Soviet hope is that American performances might strengthen the new alliance.

From here, Anderson goes back in time, bringing together in a sometimes ungainly way a portrait of the composer, astute discussions of his work and detailed descriptions of Stalin’s wildly destructive domestic and military policies. His take on Shostakovich is sympathetic but necessarily distanced; the composer, Anderson makes clear, was living under “a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival.”

Shostakovich’s career started promisingly amid an exciting climate of creative experimentation. But Anderson shows that by the 1930s, prominent artists, ­including Shostakovich, were routinely denounced for ideological failings. Harassment and deadly punishments became widespread. The effects of Stalin’s terror campaign could be detected in Shostakovich’s unsettling Fourth Symphony. As Anderson puts it, “It is as if the composer, having been brutalized, now turns and enacts this savagery upon the audience.”

After the purges and food shortages Anderson describes, it may be surprising to young readers that beleaguered citizens rallied to the fight when Germany attacked in June 1941. Shostakovich tried to enlist, was rejected and turned instead to creating music for the masses. As bombs hit Leningrad, he worked on a new symphony, probably hoping to raise morale as well as protect himself from attack. When the Germans adopted a strategy of starving Leningrad, Shostakovich was relocated with his family to the east.

Anderson doesn’t neglect the Leningraders who couldn’t get out. By January 1942, thousands were dying every day. Pets were eaten, and then came cannibalism. He notes that the young were frequent victims; one police station had crates of small clothing divided by the district in which the children were eaten. Anderson tells of many examples of caring and cooperation, but they may make less of an impression than the roaming cannibals. Anderson’s account of the symphony’s premieres in New York and Leningrad provides some welcome shifts of mood. Once the performance was announced, the American public went wild for what a promoter called “this hot baby of a Seventh Symphony.” Shostakovich was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and even Hollywood was interested. The Soviet goal was to increase American military support, and the symphony helped convince the American public to back this effort.

The difficulties surrounding the August 1942 Leningrad premiere were staggering since most musicians had fled the city or starved to death. Fifteen showed up at the first rehearsal, but they were almost too weak to play. Four months later, the performance gave tremendous hope to both the audience and the musicians. Broadcast through loudspeakers all over the city and even at the front lines, the concert, in one musician’s words, “was our answer to the suffering.”

Shostakovich ended his Seventh Symphony on a triumphal note, but Anderson never suggests that the suffering ended that night in Leningrad. The siege lasted many more months, ultimately killing about one and a half million Russians. Anderson’s book is an elegy above all.

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