Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), which is a biographical history of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is one of my favorite audiobooks I’ve listened to so far on Audible. In addition to just being a generally enjoyable listen (it is read by the author), it presents an interesting look into Soviet culture. Shostakovich lived through some of the most terrifying parts of Stalin’s purges, and as a high-profile artist he found himself frequently in the crosshairs of the regime.

Shostakovich frequently finds himself in a dilemma regarding his work for the Soviet regime. On one hand, he is a patriot of Russia. The Nazi invasion during World War II threatened everything, and his work was intended to boost the morale of his fellow citizens. On the other hand, his work serves indirectly or directly to prop up the same regime that has imprisoned his co-workers and companions and has denounced him openly. The result is a conflicted figure; Shostakovich has to carefully balance his options to live true to his conscience.

Anderson’s work takes great care to explore the nuance of Shostakovich. Shostakovich certainly tried his best to help the Russian people under the regime, even if he was ultimately incapable of overthrowing it directly. And indeed, it seems unclear whether Shostakovich could be called an ardent communist or not. Take, for instance, his 4th Symphony, which is clearly rebellious in tone and seems a clear condemnation of the Soviets (since it was written before the war). There is not a clear argument to be made whether this was a youthful indiscretion which the composer recanted, or a statement of his true distaste for the Soviet regime that he never grew out of but never had the opportunity to explicitly state.

Despite ostensibly being about Shostakovich, Symphony for the City of the Dead is just as much an account of the Second World War in Russia. Its focus is primarily musical, but it is nonetheless well-rounded so that no one needs to have an extensive knowledge of Russian military history to appreciate the context of the 7th Symphony’s development. Its accounts of the suffering of the people of Leningrad are portrayed realistically and in detail, so that the reader or listener can form their own emotional attachments, instead of being sentimentalized.

The book is a reminder of the horrors of totalitarianism which swept across the twentieth century, both those of Stalin’s mad paranoia and of Hitler’s cold genocide. It treats its subject somberly and respectfully. It is especially easy as Americans to forget the long inaction of the United States in the early years of the war, and there is a cautionary tale found in Symphony for the City of the Dead. Music is an elevation of humanity–one often exploited by the Soviets–and totalitarianism is a direct contradiction of the human spirit. Despite this, the book recounts how both Hitler and Stalin used music: the works of Wagner drove the Nazi war machine across Europe, while those of Shostakovich preserved the Russian defense against them.

The result of this is illustrates how complex morality can be. Symphony for the City of the Dead does not present music as a utopian answer to all of life’s problems. Despite ostensibly pursuing great culture, totalitarian regimes used it as a means to an end. The result is hallowing, and shown very well in the denunciations of Shostakovich over his career, which the book recounts.

After listening to music which moved the soul and elevated the mind, the next day the previously enraptured listeners would denounce Shostakovich as an enemy of the people. Despite ostensibly valuing the transcendence of art, the Soviet regime repressed it brutally, destroying and censoring those who had created its greatest works. Mere appreciation of the arts is a lacking alternative to actual morality. How else, then, can we explain the great tragedy of the 20th century?

Despite focusing on Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the book does follow Shostakovich throughout his whole life, as well as discussing other points of interest about the composer’s career. One example of this are the letters and notes that he allegedly had smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a former student (though they cannot be historically verified). From the fall of the Czar to the death of Stalin, and the following regime, Symphony for the City of the Dead lets us see Shostakovich’s life in perspective through events that influenced the shape of the modern world. Whether or not it has exaggerated Shostakovich’s place in things, it gives incredible insight to the life he lived.

It is also worth noting that the book goes outward from Shostakovich’s life to show those of many of his associates and provide a general illustration of Soviet art and culture. It is an account of the war, Stalin’s terror, and the arts following the Bolshevik revolution.

To focus on the audiobook’s format for a moment, it is very well written. It builds logically to its conclusions, without becoming overwhelming, yet respect its reader enough does not repeat itself and does not need to waste time on unnecessary explanations. It is read by the author, and It is Well read. Anderson’s voice is clear, and provides an emotional underpinning to the text.

One of the nicest perks of the audiobook is that it includes excerpts from the symphony to illustrate points that Anderson makes. These excerpts are not long, and if you listen to the audiobook at an accelerated rate, as I do, you may find that they are not as illustrative as they could otherwise have been, but it is one of those perks of the format that I would argue probably makes the book better to listen to than to read to.

This was a book that I got as part of one of Audible’s two-for-one sales. It was not, actually, the book that I was terribly interested in (the other was Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal, which I have also written about), but I have often found that the books that only barely attract my attention wind up being the ones that I enjoy the most. As someone who has studied history, and who is not a musician, but who is rather interested in, classical music this book should naturally appeal to me. However, its emphasis on the human condition makes it more than simply a history book, and more than just a biography.

I highly recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead. It’s got a great mix of personal interest and historical value.

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