“Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working.”
Thus read the log records for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in 1941, as German forces held the starving city under siege. The following summer, when rehearsals began on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, only fifteen musicians showed up. An oboist took her instrument to be repaired; the repairman requested payment not of money, but of a cat to eat.
The remarkable story behind the premiere of the Leningrad Symphony is chronicled in Jason Caffrey’s BBC article, “Shostakovich’s symphony played by a starving orchestra.” Caffrey concludes by quoting Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov:
In the end [the Seventh Symphony] was composed for humanity. And the best proof is that today we still need it, we are still listening to it.
Here in the U.S., our relationship with Shostakovich is often one of reverence. Our program notes position him in brave defiance against Soviet censorship. Writing about the composer’s Symphony No. 10 for the San Francisco Symphony, James M. Keller observes that the 1945 Ninth Symphony was denounced for insufficiently capturing the glory of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany; and that, in 1948, Shostakovich was accused of “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.”
My music history classes and multiloquent maestros all told the same story: Shostakovich was anti-Stalin, anti-censorship, anti-regime. His music was criticized and persecuted. He lived in fear and paranoia; following State-sanctioned criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he carried around a small, packed suitcase, expecting to be deported to Siberia at any moment. Continue reading “Shostakovich Wants YOU To Vote”