Soviet Detour (2)

We’ve reached the point where I need to answer my private commenter’s question about Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony and how the composer deals with the artistic-emotional problem (as I see it) of creating a musical depiction of the people trying to kill him.

The reason my commenter asked about the ‘Leningrad’ is of, course, that he knows something about its history and the programmatic terms in which the composer discussed it. In case other readers haven’t come across any of this, I should mention that the symphony was written in 1941 — a large part of it in the Leningrad that ultimately spent almost 900 days under siege from the Germans. Even before the symphony was completed (in the city of Kuibyshev [Samara], where the composer and his family eventually ended up after their evacuation), Shostakovich was apparently discussing it in such terms as these:

The exposition of the first movement speaks of people living a peaceful, happy life, who have confidence in themselves and in their future. This is the simple, peaceful life which, before the war, was enjoyed by the thousands of Leningrad civil guardsmen, by the entire city, by the country as a whole.

In the development of the first movement war breaks suddenly into the peaceful life. I do not want to build up a naturalistic episode, with sabre-rattling, shells exploding and so on. I try to convey the emotional impact of war. What I call the ‘development’ is actually an episode in the symphony’s first movement, written in a form closest to that of the rondo-sonata.

[D. Shostakovich, ‘The Days of Leningrad’s Defence’, Sovetskoye Iskusstvo, 9 Oct. 1941]


Shostakovich ‘the Leningrad fireman’ utilised in Soviet propaganda; photo from July 1941

A decade later, an article bearing Shostakovich’s name in Sovetskaya Muzyka (1951) says that he ‘even intended originally to give an appropriate subtitle to each of the movements (the first movement was to be called “war” […])’; the same article makes mention of ‘the “invasion” episode’ — in view of which it is odd to find the New Grove Second Edition saying that ‘the … prolonged “Invasion” episode’ was ‘never so called by the composer’.

At this point I ought to give everyone the chance to hear what all this talk is about; so here is the whole, 31-minute first movement of the symphony. (Anyone who wants to hear just the ‘invasion episode’ should jump in at around the seven minute mark and wait for it to start).

After that, I think there are a few things I ought to say. The first is that there are quite a few bits of Shostakovich that I simply don’t ‘get’, and this movement — most of it, anyway — is one of them. So there’s a whole level of discussion and analysis that I’m simply not able to engage with: I’d be like a blind man joining a discussion about colour. Sorry if that disappoints anyone; but, as the guy said, ‘a man’s got to know his limitations’.

Shostakovich 'the Leningrad fireman' utilised in US proganda, 'Time' cover of July 1942

Shostakovich ‘the Leningrad fireman’ utilised in US propaganda; Time cover of July 1942

The second thing is that Shostakovich doesn’t seem to have used ‘German’ or ‘Nazi’ music for his ‘invasion episode’: he’s created a rather colourless and banal tune (according to my baffled ears), and used it for a succession of about a dozen variations (I keep meaning to count them; but somehow I never do…). Or maybe I’m wrong to suggest he hasn’t: there are people who have said that this much-repeated idea does actually refer to a German — or, at any rate, Austro-Hungarian! — tune … in the form of a number from Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe’ (The Merry Widow) — which, of course, was reputed to be Hitler’s favourite operetta. The tune in question is ‘Da geh’ ich zu Maxim’ (‘You’ll Find Me At Maxim’s’) — and even Wikipedia has noticed the claim that the melody ‘was ironically cited by Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 7’. See if you can hear what they mean:

Now, since I grew up in the days before the internet, it was literally years before (i) I was able to find out which particular bit of The Merry Widow was meant to be the one referred to, and (ii) could get hold of a recording of it. And, as a result, the feeling of anti-climax — which perhaps you are now sharing! — was overwhelming. In fact, not even the knowledge that this number is also known by the title ‘O Vaterland’ (‘O, Fatherland’), thanks to its first line, can make me think that it has anything whatsoever to do with what Shostakovich wrote in his ‘invasion episode’. (And before anyone asks: Yes, the singer is terrible. So what else is new?)

Shostakovich working on the Seventh Symphony; drawing by his friend Nikolai Sokolov

Shostakovich working on the Seventh Symphony; drawing by his friend Nikolai Sokolov

But if this alleged ‘musical reference’ seems too unconvincing for words, what about Shostakovich’s words themselves? To me, you see, that 1941 quotation (included in the Shostakovich Complete Edition, which came out of the USSR in the 1980s) has always seemed completely bizarre. First of all, think of all the years of terror through which pretty well every Russian lived (or died) in the decades before 1941. Surely no-one from that world, reading the first paragraph, would have seen its contents as anything other than the kind of obedient drivel produced by every prominent Soviet citizen who didn’t want to become a guest of the NKVD: ‘people living a peaceful, happy life, who have confidence in themselves and in their future. … the simple, peaceful life which, before the war, was enjoyed by … the entire city, by the country as a whole.

Then there’s the sheerly musical misrepresentation. For it’s not even remotely true to say that ‘In the development of the first movement war breaks suddenly into the peaceful life’: what we actually hear is the very gradual, insidious approach of something which — however seemingly ‘mechanical’ it is — is surely a long way from anything that could ‘convey the emotional impact of war’.

So what is going on here? I don’t think the case of ‘German music being used or alluded to’ has been proven — so, from that point of view, my hypothesis from yesterday still stands. But is this really the music for a ‘German invasion’ at all…? Was Shostakovich perhaps being as careful to conceal the music’s real ‘programme’ as he was to sugar-coat the lived experience of his fellow-citizens before 1941? Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was undoubtedly a thing of multifarious evil — but I doubt very much that a process of ‘gathering tedium’ (pardon my purely personal reaction) was a feature of its earliest stages. For another thing, note that when Ken Russell used this section of the first movement in the 1967 film Billion Dollar Brain, the only way he could guarantee that it sounded like an invasion was to (i) start it in the middle, and (ii) actually show an invasion at the same time. If you don’t believe me, just watch the clip. (If you’ve never seen this before, the story centres upon a super-patriotic Texas oil billionaire who tries to use a private army to mount an invasion of Soviet-controlled Latvia). The other music you hear is by the great Richard Rodney Bennett.)

So where are we now? Let’s all go and think about this, and come back tomorrow…


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