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Gimbling in the Wabe – My Own Wanderings Through M. T. Anderson’s “Symphony for the City of the Dead” (Pt 2)

Gimbling in the Wabe – My Own Wanderings Through M. T. Anderson’s “Symphony for the City of the Dead” (Pt 2)

… in which I jump right in from where I left off in my first installment of my thoughts on Symphony for the City of the Dead, which was published in last week’s Gimbing in the Wabe… ~~~~~ Dmitri Shostakovich was somewhat untouched by the gloom and doom following implementation of the Bolshevik’s Five-Year Plan.  […]

Dmitri Shostakovich with the Glazunov Quartet in 1940.   Colorised version.

Dmitri Shostakovich with the Glazunov Quartet in 1940. Colorised version.

… in which I jump right in from where I left off in my first installment of my thoughts on Symphony for the City of the Dead, which was published in last week’s Gimbing in the Wabe



Dmitri Shostakovich was somewhat untouched by the gloom and doom following implementation of the Bolshevik’s Five-Year Plan.  After all, his music had been well received, universally liked, and critically acclaimed.  But by the mid-1930s, he had seen many of his former collaborators and friends imprisoned, driven away, or simply disappear.  Paranoia was starting to set in.  Being too popular could get you arrested just as easily as speaking against the government.

In 1936, the Party’s newspaper, Pravda, gave a scathing review of Shostakovich’s new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, which signaled that he was in the Politburo’s crosshair (some rumors have it that Stalin – who attended the premiere – wrote the negative review himself).  While Dmitri was never arrested, he now lived and worked in a state of fear which was to dog him for much of the rest of his life, although it did not stop him from composing.

I fear I have lost you all in a poor summarization of what author M. T. Anderson has so wonderfully chronicled in Symphony for the City of the Dead, and that was not really my intention.  It’s just that once you have glimpsed Dmitri Shostakovich’s life through the lens of this meticulously researched (yet accessibly written) book, it’s very easy to get caught up in the strings that move this amazing tale.  And what makes it even more amazing is the realization that this was simply a life lived – not a fanciful fiction or a story based upon a life.  One man of talent moving through the years as best he can, against a backdrop of turmoil and unrest.

It would also be easy to get lost in the impact that Joseph Stalin had on the lives of the Russian people, and Dmitri Shostakovich in particular, or in the fear and paranoia that was part and parcel of the composer’s life.  But the book encompasses so much more while still keeping Dmitri as the anchor point – something I found to be very affecting.  For the first time, I got a sense for life in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to World War II, and an understanding of the absolute egotism that discounted millions upon millions of ordinary people, an egotism that nearly brought a proud nation to its knees.

But what I found most compelling was the sacrifice of the people of the USSR during the disaster that was World War II, and specifically the sacrifice of the citizens of Leningrad.  It’s hard to fathom the ineptitude and soulless apathy that allowed the Siege of Leningrad to be a tactic (the siege lasted almost three years, longer than any other siege in recorded history), but also the dogged determination of the people left to starve behind the German blockade.  It’s so easy to get lost in the hugeness of the loss.  But hinging it on the account of a renown composer who wrote his most famous work during the siege (his Seventh Symphony, known as the Leningrad Symphony) “reduces” it to the personal, and truly makes this book an epic tale of triumph and despair.


And yet, one must absorb these statistics:  it is estimated that 27 million Soviet citizens died in WWII, most of them on their home soil.  Let me make that more visual:  27,000,000 people.  Each one of them, an individual, a person who loved and laughed and had a story.  Try to not just look at the number, but wrap your mind around the staggering loss.  That is more than all the other deaths from all the other countries involved in World War II combined.  Almost 14% of the Soviet population died in the war.  14%. Population, not just soldiers.  On their home soil.  Over 70,000 Soviet cities, towns, and villages were wiped completely off the map.  Over 70,000.  In my home state of Minnesota, we have 854 incorporated municipalities.  That’s like wiping out the entire state of Minnesota 82 times. (An imperfect comparison, yes, but a way to express the magnitude of the loss.)

In the siege of Leningrad alone, approximately 1.5 million people lost their lives – men, women and children.  That’s more than three times the number of people living in my home town of Minneapolis.  Locked in a siege for 872 days – almost three years – with no way in or out, no food, no running water, no heat (through subzero temperatures for weeks, months at a time), only intermittent, very localized electricity for almost three years.  Think of the last three years of your life, and now take that all away and imagine not being able to leave the town you live in, and to give up water, electricity, heat (or cooling), and available food for that entire time.  It’s mind boggling.  More people died in Leningrad – most of them from starvation – than American troops killed in battle in all wars fought by the United States since we became a nation.

Let me repeat that:  more people died in the city of Leningrad – not soldiers, but ordinary men, women and children – than American troops killed in battle in all wars fought by the United States since we became a nation.  And it was a tactic:  the Germans thought, “why should we shoot them or bomb them when we can merely let them starve?”

I don’t put those numbers out there to try to enrage you, or as a comparison as to what was better or worse, to lessen other losses or mitigate other evils, or to attach a judgment as to the validity of any statistical analogy.  I simply am trying to speak beyond the numbers.  To try to bring an inkling of understanding of the devastation of a country, of a people, due to the folly of men caught up in the cancer of unchecked power.

Yet even as we grapple with the sheer numbers involved in this conflict, author M. T. Anderson underscores the struggle with more personal insight into the stories of sacrifice, gleaned from the remembrances of the people who survived them, and the notes from those who did not.  Yes, stories of eating wallpaper paste and boiling leather belts, but also a witness to what it meant to be starving:

Their movements became slow and mechanical.  Their speech slurred as their vocal chords atrophied.  It became difficult to move at all.  A survivor recalled, “It was roughly the feeling that your foot wouldn’t leave the ground.  Can you understand?  The feeling that when you had to put your foot on a step, it just refused to obey.  It was like it is in dreams sometimes.  It seems you’re just about to run, but your legs won’t work.  Or you want to shout out, and you’ve no voice.”

I cannot fathom having to eat wallpaper paste to survive; it is simply beyond my ken.  But I do have the barest inkling of what it is like to have my mind tell my body to do something, and have my body refuse to obey:  due to a low metabolism and a hormone imbalance (very easily treated), I can quickly slip into a lethargic state.  In fact, I remember instances of sitting in a chair and telling myself to get up, to move, to accomplish something, anything, and yet being unable to shift an inch.  (I understand that those suffering from severe depression also find it hard to goad themselves into performing even the simplest of acts.)

I have no doubt that I would have been one of the first to succumb to the horrors of the siege of Leningrad.   I would not have survived.  And as somber as that thought is, it makes my life now appear to be overflowing with riches.


There are many other incredible stories in Symphony for the City of the Dead, both heartbreaking and inspiring.  That Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony even came into being is amazing enough, as well as what it ended up meaning to the people of Leningrad, of Russia.  The saga of how the manuscript for the symphony made its way from Russia to the USA for its American premiere (the tale that was the impetus for the book), reads like something out of a spy novel.  How Dmitri Shostakovich himself navigated the delicate balance between expression and submission, between defiance and obedience, and managed to not only survive but create inspiring works of art is in and of itself breathtaking.

But what will stick with me the longest is how on August 9, 1942 – the day that Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating victory with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria ballroom – Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was defiantly performed in a city still in the grips of the German stranglehold.  The Leningrad Radio Orchestra had been decimated – only 15 musicians could be found in the entire city who still had the strength to play – but others were recruited from the Red Army regiments guarding the city.  Still, the men and women who undertook learning the massive work were emaciated, starving, barely able to drag themselves to rehearsal, exhausted by their efforts (three of the orchestral players died before they were able to play the piece in full), but still determined to perform this, their symphony.

The night of the performance, the Red Army launched a diversionary attack on the German lines on the opposite side of the city, in order to keep the enemy from targeting the Grand Philharmonia Hall, which was lit up for the first time in ages.  Loudspeakers had been set up to broadcast the symphony’s performance not only to the people in the streets, but also out across the no-man’s zone where the German troops were entrenched.

It was not only the Russians who reacted.  The Germans listened, too, as the music rose up through the leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons.  It barked out of the radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.  Years later, a German soldier told (Conductor Karl) Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us.  The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.”  That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen.  We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death – the will to stay human.”

The will to stay human.  Hold on to that thought, and listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.  Right now, if you can.  Go to YouTube, find a recording of it (or simply click on this link).  Listen to it.  Think on the city and the time from which it sprung.  The music becomes even more powerful once you know the weight of the history behind it.

Then find out more.  Get a copy of M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead, and discover all that I was not able to even touch upon here, including riveting discussions about the power of music and how it touches our lives (a topic which could be an entire Gimbling in the Wabe on its own).  Listen to the music as you read about the composer, and how the works came to be – not just the Seventh Symphony, but the Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution (written when Shostakovich was 11), the Suite for Two Pianos, Opus 6 (written when he was 13), the Bedbug Suite (from his Futurist period), the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, his First Symphony, his Fifth Symphony…. listen to them.  Read and listen.  And learn.

~ Sharon Browning