Shostakovich 7- the city, the year, the performance

(The ghosts of Leningrad, now St Petersberg, as captured by the great Alexey Titarenko)

For all that readers are seeing a lot about Gustav Mahler on these pages, the work on my desk right now is Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, which I am conducting next week.

I hope that I’ll have time to write in detail about the piece, which is proving to be a revelation in spite of the fact that I’ve loved Shostakovich’s music all my life. As I try to unravel the layers upon layers of references, meanings, allusions and ciphers in the piece, I’ve been scouring books, articles and webpages for help and insight- mostly in vain. In spite of the fact that Shostakovich is probably the most performed composer born in the 20th century, and probably also the most written about and discussed, most of what is out there is not very helpful. There is too much ranting about politics and not enlightening enough music.

I did, however, find a remarkable article on the Guardian website (originally published in The Observer in 2001) by Ed Vulliamy. The rather lame title, Orchestral Maneuvers, doesn’t give you any sense of what the lenthy two-part feature is about- a dramatic retelling of the story of the Lenningrad premiere of Shostakovich 7. It’s a story that, in it’s sanitized and shortened form, appears in almost every program note for the piece, but this account shook me. I link to it today as I know some of my colleagues in the orchestra read this blog, and I’m sure they’ll want to read it before we perform the piece next week.

So, how bad was the winter of 1941-2, the peak of the siege of Leningrad? Part I sets the scene in horrifying detail.

‘There was not a trace of joy in a single face,’ said Parfionov. ‘Everyone thin, exhausted, starving. I was on Troisky Bridge one day when a man collapsed in front of me. He looked into my eyes and pleaded for help; I told him there was nothing I could do for him, and walked on. The only thing anyone thought about was the next meal. Even in the military canteen, soldiers crawled around the floor to see if anyone had allowed crumbs to drop before going out to trenches in the cold.’ Temperatures reached 35 degrees below zero.

The horror of cannibalism has been mentioned by some Western historians, but is taboo in Russia, a blackout in Soviet and post-Soviet memory. One Westerner mentions such details as the arrest of one woman on her way back from a graveyard with the bodies of five children in a sack, but notes: ‘The memory of trauma – of minds and bodies frozen by fear and by the horror that everyone was forced to see – has been almost entirely lost.’ Mrs Matus turned the stone a little: ‘I remember a neighbour, a woman, used to come knocking at the door of our apartment shouting at mother, “Let me in!” And she would run through the door, because her husband was trying to kill her to eat her.’

Viktor Koslov is bolder. Born in Briansk, near Moscow, he had become a clarinetist like his father and, in 1935, joined the illustrious Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. He has a vivacious, easy-going face, but when he conjures up that winter in his mind’s eye, his muscles tighten. ‘Some were dead, others half dead, sometimes from injuries they had done to themselves. People were cutting off and eating their own buttocks. We only really saw what winter did when the snow began to melt. “Look, here comes spring!” But what did it bring? Decomposing, dismembered corpses in the streets that had been hidden under the ice. Severed legs with meat chopped off them. Bits of bodies in the bins. Women’s bodies with breasts cut off, which people had taken to eat. They had been buried all winter but there they were for all the city to see how it had remained alive.’

During this nightmare of life-in-death, Shostakovich was torn between brooding distress over his native Leningrad, anxiety for his mother and sister who had remained, and a struggle to finish his symphony. Work on a final movement, intended to envisage ‘a beautiful future time when the enemy will have been defeated’, eluded him.

But, finish it he did.

In Part II, Vulliamy tells the amazing story of wht it took to put together a performance with conductor Karl Eliasberg of this massive symphony in famine stricken Lenningrad-

The Seventh is a colossal work. It demands battalions of strings, but what worried Eliasberg most were the voluminous arrangements for woodwind and brass in a city short of breath. Eliasberg procured a list of musicians, of whom 25 were already blacked out, dead. Those known to be alive were circled in red and ordered to report for duty.

Of the orchestra of 100 people, there were only 15 left. I didn’t recognise the musicians I knew from before, they were like skeletons. I don’t think Eliasberg called the first rehearsal to look for musicians. It was evident we couldn’t play anything, we could hardly stand on our feet! Nevertheless, he said: “Dear friends, we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work,” and raised his arms to begin. There was no reaction. The musicians were trembling. Finally, those who were able to play a bit helped the weaker musicians, and thus our small group began to play the opening bars. And that was the beginning of the first rehearsal.

‘I remember the trumpeter didn’t have the breath to play his solo and there was silence when his turn came around. He was on his knees, poor man. Eliasberg was waiting; he said: “It’s your solo. You’re the first trumpet, why don’t you play?” The trumpeter replied: “I’m sorry, sir, I haven’t the strength in my lungs.” There was a terrible pause. Everyone asked him to try. Eliasberg said: “I think you do have the strength,” and the trumpeter took up his trumpet and played a little. And so the rehearsal continued. Everybody did their best, but we played badly, it was hopeless, and the first rehearsal broke up after 15 minutes.’ It had been scheduled to last three hours.

Eliasberg walked the length of Nevsky Prospekt to military headquarters at Smolny Palace, with a simple request: he needed reinforcements from the front, anyone who could play an instrument. The order went out from commander-in-chief General Leonid Govorov himself: military bands and anyone capable should report to the studio….

‘Rehearsals,’ Parfionov recalled, ‘were from 10 to one o’clock. No time for fun or to ask anyone who they were; we came, did our job and left. People were in a terrible condition. Often Eliasberg would have to repeat instructions two or three times before people could understand. We went over the same passage of music over and over, simply to get it strong enough. To be honest, no one was very enthusiastic’.

‘We would start rehearsing,’ recalls Viktor Koslov, one of Parfionov’s men, ‘and get dizzy with our heads spinning when we blew. The symphony was too big. People were falling over at the rehearsals; we might talk to the person sitting next to us, but the only subjects were hunger and food – not music.’

…And ‘some of our orchestra died,’ said Parfionov. ‘Three, as I recall, including a flautist called Karelsky. People were dying like flies, so why not the orchestra? Hunger and cold everywhere. When you are hungry, you are cold however warm it is. Sometimes, people just fell over on to the floor while they were playing.’

Eliasberg would remain working on the score long after his musicians had left. ‘He was very strict,’ said Mrs Matus, ‘He would allow for no mistakes, or delays. If a musician played badly or was late, they would lose their bread ration. If someone was late because of a bombing raid, he would accept the excuse only if there had been no warnings from the siren. One day, a man came late because he had to watch them bury his wife that morning. But Eliasberg said that was no excuse, and the man would lose his ration.’

Koslov remembers the episode well. ‘He said: “This must not happen again. If your wife or husband dies, you must be at the rehearsal.” He demanded absolute commitment and attention. When people said, “It’s no good, I can’t play it,” Eliasberg would reply, “Go on. No complaining!”

I  quote that last bit lest anyone ever accuse me of being tough again….

The description of the concert itself is deeply moving. A must read.

(More Alexey Titarenko)

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Shostakovich 7- the city, the year, the performance”

  1. Alexey

    Dear Kenneth,
    Of course you may use my photographs for your new blog post about Shostakovich’s ‘Leningradskaya” symphony.

    What you do not know, just ‘ a propos’, when I was student and as my parents coulnd’t afford to give me any money, I worked every evening after lectures (between 1981 and 1983) in a Grand Hall of Leningrad’s Philarmonia, where the music director at that time was Evgeniy Mravinsky and where was performed the symphony n 7 in December 1941 (conductor was Eliasberg). Some of the musicians was still alive and working at that time, staying in line with me to get the salary (that was distributed in cash) to the cashier of the Philarmonia every 5 and 20th of the month… .

    My job was to open the Hall for public one hour before concert, to change hand made posters about upcoming concerts (all around Philarmonia), to stay in a Hall during the concert (and if there was a late night rehearsal , even after) and, after the last musician has left, to check that there was no any human being inside and then to close carefully all the doors.

    That gave me a unique chance to attend about 700 concerts and a lot of happiness!

    Best luck to you too , with Orchestra of the Swan!

  2. Greg A

    “I’m jealous–I’ll most likely never get to play this work. But the article is great–perhaps there’s a way I can find to share it with my 13-year-old cello players who refuse to sit with good position for a two minute orchestra piece!”

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