Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Friday 27th October, Royal Festival Hall, London

by Jennifer Bryce

Shostakovich’s 7th (‘Leningrad’) Symphony was completed in 1942 at the time of the Siege of Leningrad – when, in World War II, Leningrad was blockaded by the Germans from 8th September 1941 until 27th January 1944. Whether the whole work is Shostakovich’s response to this particular annhiliation of human life cannot be known. It is believed that Shostakovich started on this work before the siege, but the later parts were completed while he was undertaking defence work stationed on the roof of the conservatoire in a fireman’s helmet, ready to put out incendiary bombs. Did he, as he said in Pravda at the time, want to ‘compose a piece about today, about our life and our heroic people, fighting and conquering the enemy’? Or was it a necessarily suppressed motivation expressing the suffering of the people of Soviet Russia under Stalin (Solomon Volkov, Testimony, 1979)?

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Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony in his fire helmet

Today, sitting in the middle of the balcony of Royal Festival Hall, London, taking in the expanse of the auditorium with its array of organ pipes, the boxes, the full complement of the London Philharmonic Orchestra spread beneath us, we are most definitely listening to a response to horror and menace; the brutality and suffering that humans inflict upon other humans, as much, or more so today as they did in Shostakovich’s time.

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In 1941, Hitler set out to utterly destroy Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He aimed to starve the population – the food supplies were burned and we were told in a pre-concert talk that he had a dietician calculate how long it would take for the entire population to starve to death. There are stories of eating pets, of grandparents dying of starvation so that their grandchildren could have their rations, of cannibalism. With incredible determination, people survived – and thus these accounts are documented.

Seige of Leningrad 2

Somehow, when the symphony was completed in 1942, an orchestra was scratched together for a performance. The players of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra were so weak from lack of food that they could barely play – apparently three died at rehearsal. The orchestra had to be supplemented with players from the military. And on 9th August 1942, there was a performance, conducted by Karl Eliasberg.

Shostakovich Karl Eliasberg

The performance was broadcast through the streets to give the people of Leningrad hope. A microfilmed score had been secretly flown to Tehran and hence to the West, where it seems the allies took it up as a message of courage and determination to win the war. The program of the concert I attended contained an excerpt from a review in London’s Evening Standard of 22nd June 1942 (before the Russian performance): ‘The work itself was conceived in beleaguered Leningrad . . . its full orchestral climax entitled ‘’Victory’’, left one glad to know that it had been written for and about a people whose military aspirations we share’.


For me, the main impression of the music was of menace. It is a long four movement work and I did sometimes feel that maybe Shostakovich had wanted to bring together a profusion of ideas – maybe fearing that there wouldn’t be another opportunity – whereas his string quartets express a starker, perhaps more poignant, perhaps more ironic message. In this work, the side drum conveys a menacing presence – barely there, at first, then bursting into full-scale threat. There seemed to me to be homage to creativity – sometimes a simple and beautiful flute or piccolo solo (the piccolo playing was noticeably superb), at one point a Bach-like fugal section played by the upper strings, but beneath this, always the menace.

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Apparently the finale was once labelled ‘Victory’, but surely this was for propaganda purposes and the supposedly triumphant tune, played by full orchestra is not fully convincing in its glory. According to the program, Volkov (1979), who claimed to have interviewed Shostakovich, quotes Shostakovich as saying: ‘I never thought about exultant finales . . . for what exultation could there be?’

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