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January 31, 2005

The Film of the Symphony - Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Shostakovich: Symphony no. 7 'Leningrad'
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Maxim Shostakovich
Film directed by Georgi Paradzhanov
Great Hall of the Philharmonia, St. Petersburg
27th January 2005

This performance is to be repeated in London. On May 9th 2005 Maxim Shostakovich, in a rare London appearance, will be conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall to the screening of Georgi Paradzhanov's film, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE Day. It will be fascinating to see how London receives this very unusual event.

Although on 27th January this year the world was commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945, St. Petersburg recognised another anniversary: it was also 61 years to the day since the lifting of the German blockade of the city in its former incarnation of Leningrad. In honour of the occasion, a gala performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony was laid on, conducted by the composer's son Maxim and accompanied by a special film, compiled largely from contemporary documentary footage by the leading Russian director Georgi Paradzhanov and the writer Boris Tischenko, advised by a battery of specialists including the musician Rudolf Barshai and Shostakovich's widow Irina. The concert was of course a sell-out from its announcement, but, given that many tickets were dished out to veterans, there were many who were willing to trade them outside the hall for the equivalent of a week's pension (that is, four or five pounds). Thus your critic found himself up in the gallery amongst a number of chatty survivors, mostly ladies and many bemedalled, who were delighted to fill in the background to the evening.

The catalogue of horrors suffered by Europe during the Second World War is so voluminous that the story of Leningrad, though etched in the local collective memory, has perhaps not made its mark in the world outside. Over 882 days of blockade, starting in September 1941, in which 3.2 million people were trapped, including 1.4 million children and elderly, about 800,000 died of starvation, apart from those who died in the incessant bombardments. Cats, rats and (it was insinuated) worse, were eagerly sought after. Although the fabric of the city, especially its historic buildings, has been largely restored, the blockade left a lasting mark in terms of health and life-expectancy in the years following the war which is only now normalising as the war generation expires.

Before the ring around the city closed, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who had already begun composing a symphonic poem in tribute to his native city, was evacuated to Samara (then known as Kuibyshev). While there, his tribute began to take the form of a symphony, Shostakovich's seventh, which was destined to have a political impact immeasurably greater than its musical substance.

Premiered in Samara in March 1942 and then performed in Moscow, it was bruited, and seized upon, both in Russia and abroad, as a symbol of the defiance and determination of the Russian people against the German invaders. Copies of the score were airlifted to Europe and the US; Henry Wood performed it at the London Proms, and Toscanini and Stokowski battled to give the first American performance. Toscanini won; Time magazine featured the composer, in his Leningrad Volunteer Fireman's helmet, on its front cover. Within a year there were over 60 performances of the symphony in America alone; the impoverished Bartók, entering his final decline in a New York hospital, grew so heartily sick of it that he parodied part of the crude central theme of the first movement in his own Concerto for Orchestra, giving it a comment of very explicit raspberries in the form of trombone glissandi.

But most remarkable was the premiere of the work in the city of its dedication. A score was smuggled into Leningrad; the conductor Karl Eliasberg was told to get an orchestra together. Many of the musicians he could find were too weak and feeble even to hold their instruments – special rations were given to participants. The performance was scheduled in the Philharmonia Hall for August 9th 1942 – the day which Hitler had predicted would mark the success of the German siege. One of my neighbours in the gallery had actually been in the hall for this performance. Batteries of loudspeakers were arranged outside the hall for the benefit of those without tickets, and at the edge of the city to broadcast the performance across to German lines. This is an event which has understandably gone down in legend, and would qualify as the subject for a film in itself.

The outcome of the symphony's early over-promotion in the end did no favours to the composer; it aroused the wroth and envy of apparatchik composers at home, who were quick to take their revenge during the Stalinist campaign led by Zhdanov against 'formalism' in 1948, while those in Britain and elsewhere who had held the young composer to be a Communist fraud before the war could point to the essential musical emptiness of this supposed 'masterwork' once the siege was lifted and once more relegate him to the sidelines. Whether or not you are happy with the genuineness of the composer's 'autobiography' Testimony (and I am inclined to give most of it the benefit of the doubt) its descriptions of the composer's equal despair at success and condemnation are the perfect counterpart to the spirit of his music. It is astounding that this reticent, almost squeamish, character survived at all, let alone wrote so much music, and so much of it (especially the chamber music) of outstanding quality. There rages these days a full-scale academic war, of which Testimony is in itself a major battlefield, as to the 'sincerity' of Shostakovich as a Communist believer, or as a covert anti-Communist. Of course, like most Russians, he was both: one had to be, in order to hang on in.

The Leningrad Symphony is not however a work which contributes much, if anything, to the composer's artistic reputation. Dropped from Russian programmes after the Zhdanovka, and from Western programmes after the Cold War set in, it was not until Leonard Bernstein's landmark recording of the 1960s that it began to resurface. It has one very striking feature, which Bernstein evokes brilliantly: the central passage of the first movement (originally subtitled by the composer 'Invasion'), instead of, as traditionally, developing the (rather moribund) themes of the exposition, begins a tawdry march with a kitsch refrain, at first pianissimo on flutes with a side drum tapping, repeated twelve times with ever greater intensity and leading to a crashing climax. This, the Soviet answer to Ravel's Bolero, is the passage that evoked the wroth of Bartók. It was interpreted at the time as the relentless onset of the Germany army, although the composer later hinted to friends that its jackboots represented left-foot as well as right-foot. Subtle it isn't, but it is the only passage of the symphony that stays lodged in the mind. The other three movements, intended by the composer originally to suggest memories of the pre-war period, the Russian landscape and victory, are workmanlike but frankly unengaging; despite the louder passages, I have found myself nodding off during past performances.

The creation of Paradzhanov's film to accompany the symphony seems to me a brilliant solution. Taking extracts from Russian and German newsreel and documentary film, an impressionary narrative has been created. By associating themes from the symphony with particular ideas or events, the structure of the film and that of the symphony appear to mirror each other – so that even if the music by itself is lacking, its combination with the events on screen becomes absorbing. Thus the whole march passage from the first movement, inevitably but with great effect, is accompanied by film showing the rise of the Nazi movement and the German army going to war. Interestingly, the 'memories' of the second movement include not only pastoral scenes and pre-war city life, but also scenes showing the destruction of the churches, the idolization of Stalin, the famine in Ukraine and the slave-labour in the construction of the White Sea Canal – so there is no glossing–over in the name of patriotism. In the third movement we are shown the destruction of the city, intercut with children's drawings and paintings of the siege. The last movement section of the film recapitulates many of these images, together with montage of the Russian T-34s in the battle of Kursk and footage of the composer himself, as ever frail and pallid with a cigarette drooping from his mouth.

It will be apparent that it is rather difficult, if not perhaps superfluous, to give any comments on the musical aspects of this performance. The whole occasion took, in many ways, more of the nature of a religious service. It was prefaced by a guard of honour marching into the hall and a battery of speeches, including an impressive performance by a general who clearly took delight at being able to utter at full volume the almost suppressed word 'Leningrad'. The veterans amongst whom I was sitting were transfixed by the film and almost speechless with emotion afterwards, for all that they had been voluble before.

For myself, who was not a participant in their story, the most moving moment was when Maxim Shostakovich, having conducted the concluding moments of the symphony, which were accompanied by a film clip of his father, laid down his baton, took up the score, kissed it and held it out toward the rapturous audience. I cannot conceive this conjunction of music, patriotism and popular acclaim taking place anywhere else in the world but Russia. It tells us something about this extraordinary country of contradictions, and the extraordinary contradictions of the artists that it produces.

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