Music of the Day: Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony

Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is a masterpiece of music. While Shostakovich is sometimes too modern for my tastes, he nonetheless manages to create moving and evocative music.

I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead, which provides an overview of Shostakovich’s life. If one understands the historical context of Shostakovich’s work, it becomes increasingly meaningful. The grotesque military march, symbol of the rise of totalitarianism–whether Shostakovich intends to represent the rise of Hitler or Stalin is up for debate–which marks the opening of the piece sets a dire tone that is carried forward to the rest of the work. After this grim introduction, the following movements provide a complex exploration of the realities of war. Although sheltered from the worst privations of his native Leningrad, Shostakovich still felt a deep connection to the city, which he had evacuated after the siege began.

The work, though a product of one of the most testing times in human history, did not lose its spirit. It is not for nothing that people clamored for it before it was released to the world, before Shostakovich had even completed the peace, and it would show even Hitler what determination could do in the face of adversity, what the human spirit could achieve despite hatred and oppression.

Despite the siege, it would be smuggled back into Leningrad, and performed by the starving and ill symphony that had already lost so many of its members. Its performance would not mark the end of the siege of Leningrad, but it marked a turning point: Hitler had failed to crush the spirit of Leningrad.

Around the world, it was met with acclaim. It showed that the Russians, often thought of as backwards and brutal due to stereotypes from both before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, were worth saving, and the Allies (especially the Americans) increased the aid campaigns to the Russians so that they could continue to hold off assaults by one of history’s most devastating and brutal adversaries.

Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony may be described as the symphony with saved Russia, but it’s also a symphony of war and tragedy. Its swells of triumph, and lingering strains of despair, make it deeply human, deeply meaningful, valuable beyond the contents of its pages.

Few works can tell a story as well as Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. It is both mercurial, meeting the listener where they stand, and timeless, encapsulating Shostakovich’s deep feelings for his homeland, his people, and his duty.

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