Poised with his baton, the conductor pauses a moment. His orchestra, instruments at the ready, watch him. Somewhere in the audience, someone coughs. The conductor waits for absolute silence knowing that this is the biggest occasion of his life. Finally, he brings the baton down with a whoosh and starts the performance.
But this is no ordinary conductor, no ordinary orchestra and no ordinary audience. They were all on the verge of death, suffering from the advanced stages of starvation. To hold, let alone play, an instrument for over an hour took every ounce of their strength. But the music they played that night was proof of their spirit and that ultimately their city would survive.
The city was Leningrad; the music was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad, and 70 years ago today it saw its Leningrad premier at the height of the most devastating siege of modern times.
A year earlier, Dmitry Shostakovich (pictured), made a radio announcement in which he said, ‘An hour ago, I completed the score of two movements of my new, large symphonic work.’ This new work was his Seventh Symphony, later to be called the Leningrad.
The siege of Leningrad had just started; it was to last 872 days, or twenty-nine months. Hitler had declared his intention to ‘wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth’. Over a million civilians and soldiers would die – the number of deaths in Leningrad exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.
‘Now I am ready to take up arms’
The city authorities had tried to make Shostakovich leave but, loyal to the city, he stayed, working on his composition and volunteering for the People’s Army, stating, ‘Until now I have known only peaceful work. But now I am ready to take up arms.’ But his good intentions were dashed by the military – rejected because of his poor eyesight. But he was allowed instead to take his turn on fire warden duty. The American magazine, Time featured the composer on its cover, wearing a golden helmet and holding a fireman’s nozzle, with the caption, ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. Eventually, he was ordered to leave. On 1 October, with his wife and children and the manuscript of his score stuffed in his suitcase, he bid farewell to the city of his birth. While he was gone, his dog was eaten.
Evacuated to the town of Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), 900 miles south-east of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the symphony while producing short works to entertain the troops on the frontline, tunes with catchy titles, such as The Fearless Guards Regiment is on the Move. By the end of the year, the symphony was done. Dedicated to ‘…our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory and to my native city of Leningrad’, it received its world première, broadcast to the nation, in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, followed by a performance in Moscow three weeks later.
A microfilm of the score was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and flown to Teheran and from there to Europe, where conductors fought for the privilege of conducting the work. It was performed first in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, then in New York on 19 July, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The symphony was an immediate hit and Shostakovich’s face appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world.
The Symphony Comes to Leningrad
Then came the decision to play the Leningrad Symphony in Leningrad itself. It would be, according to Andrey Zhdanov (pictured), Stalin’s man in Leningrad, good for the city’s morale. A Soviet plane, dodging the German guns, delivered the score to Zhdanov. The city’s principle orchestra, the Philharmonic, had already been evacuated out of the city but the reserve orchestra, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, was still available. Its conductor, 42-year-old Karl Eliasberg, was charged with reassembling his musicians. But of its 100 members, only 14 remained. The others had all died or been killed. Replacements had to be found. The call went out urging soldiers who could play an instrument to report for duty.
The score, complex and mammoth, was 75 minutes long and involved a 90-piece orchestra. Given the weakness of the musicians who had gathered for the first rehearsal in March 1942, Eliasberg knew the difficulty of the task that lay ahead. ‘Dear friends,’ he began, ‘we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work.’
And it was hard work – despite extra rations, many, especially the brass players, passed out with the effort of playing their instruments. Eliasberg was tough on his players – those who played badly or, worse, failed to turn up for the three-hour long rehearsals, were docked a bread ration. Through discipline and coaxing, Eliasberg got his skeletal orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s huge work. But only once during rehearsals did the orchestra have enough strength to play the whole work throughout – three days before the big day.
The date for the performance was fixed – 9 August 1942, the date set by the Nazis for a huge party in Leningrad’s Astoria hotel to celebrate their anticipated capture of the city. The invitations had already been printed. They were never sent out.
The Leningrad Première
The Philharmonic Hall was packed – people came in their finest clothes; city leaders and generals took their places. The musicians, despite the warm August temperature, wore coats and mittens – when the body is starving, it is continually cold. Outside, throughout the city, people gathered to listen at loudspeakers. Hours earlier, Leonid Govorov, Leningrad’s military commander since April 1942, ordered a barrage of artillery onto the German lines to ensure their silence for long enough time for the work to be performed without interruption. Loudspeakers, on full volume, pointed in the direction of the Germans – the city wanted the enemy to hear.
‘This performance,’ announced Eliasberg in a pre-recorded introduction, ‘is witness to our spirit, our courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!’ And the city listened, as did the Germans nearby. They listened as the city of Leningrad reasserted its moral self.
At the end – silence. Then came the applause, a thunderous applause that lasted over an hour. People cheered and cried. They knew they had witnessed a momentous occasion. It was, as Eliasberg described later, the moment ‘we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’ Later, Eliasberg and his orchestra were invited to a reception hosted by Zhdanov where, laid out before them, was a huge banquet. They gorged themselves, only to be sick soon afterwards.
Years after the war, Eliasberg met some Germans who had been sitting encamped in their trenches outside the city. On hearing the music, they told the conductor, they had burst into tears, ‘Who are we bombing?’ they asked themselves, ‘We will never be able to take Leningrad because the people here are selfless.’
See also articles on Karl Eliasberg and Andrey Zhdanov.
Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.