Music for a Restrictive Regime: Shostakovich’s “Leningrad”

Beethoven is the only composer whose name is honored by an inscription in Boston’s Symphony Hall. According to legend, when Symphony Hall was built in 1900, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) Board of Directors could not agree on featuring any other composer’s name. Perhaps, if Symphony Hall were being built today, some might consider the name of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) as meriting an inscription.

Shostakovich has brought great acclaim to the BSO in recent years. Under the young Latvian music director Andris Nelsons, now in his third season leading the symphony, the BSO has embarked on a multi-year recording project with Deutsche Grammophon to record all fifteen of Shostakovich’s symphonies. The first two releases won consecutive Grammy Awards, and in a recent series of concerts, one of which I was fortunate enough to attend, the symphony continued its recording project with performances of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” (1942).

In Shostakovich studies, one of the most difficult questions to answer is what music the composer would have written had he not been forced to compose according to the political demands of the Soviet government, particularly under Stalin. One example of how Shostakovich’s creative output was affected by politics is the fact that he never wrote another opera after his “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” (1934) was denounced by the Soviet press in 1936, supposedly on Stalin’s orders. However, I find that the power of Shostakovich’s music comes from his creative ways of composing under the rules of the Soviet regime. Much of his work is a great example of how in this case “[deadly] restrictions breed creativity.”

The Leningrad Symphony was composed a few years after the denunciation of Lady Macbeth. By this time, Shostakovich had been rehabilitated with the premiere of his Symphony No. 5 (1937), an immensely popular work that was billed at the time as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” More recent critics have suggested it contains various subversive elements, including references to then-politically controversial lyrics containted in some of Shostakovich’s “desk drawer” compositions, which were not discovered until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Shostakovich composed the Leningrad Symphony between the spring and winter of 1941. In that time, Hitler invaded the USSR and put the composer’s home city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) under siege. Shostakovich and his family were evacuated from the city, and he wrote the fourth movement in cramped conditions in Kuibyshev (now Samara), but much of the population of Leningrad was not as lucky as Shostakovich. An estimated one million people died in the 900-day siege due to exposure, starvation and constant attacks by Nazi forces, and some of those who survived even resorted to cannibalism. Stalin did not trust Leningrad due to its decadence as the former tsarist capital of the Russian Empire and saw the events of the siege as necessary for the triumph of Communism over Fascism. There is an interesting comparison, I should note, that can be made between Stalin’s views on the people of Leningrad and some current world leaders’ views on refugees.

The Leningrad Symphony quickly gained popularity with performances throughout World War II in both the USSR and the West. It was seen at the time as a deeply patriotic symphony emblematic of the moral superiority of the Allies over the evils of the Nazis and Fascism. After the war, as US-Soviet relations decayed, the Leningrad Symphony began to receive criticism in the U.S., as did much of Shostakovich’s work, for its apparent support of the brutal Stalin regime.

Since Shostakovich’s death and the dissolution of the USSR, the symphony has again been reinterpreted as a protest against all types of totalitarian regimes. The work contains possible parallels to both Hitler and Stalin. For example, the prominent first movement invasion theme quotes what was allegedly Hitler’s favorite song, Franz Lehar’s “Da geh ich zu Maxim,” and the final seemingly-victorious strains of the fourth movement sound inconclusive to my ears and make me wonder whether the symphony is really about good versus evil.

To a viewer unaware of recent events, the BSO’s performances of the Leningrad Symphony might have seemed like an ordinary subscription concert with masterful playing ending in a lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation. Historically, however, the great difficulty of playing Shostakovich’s works in the U.S. has been that most players lack first-hand experience with the atmosphere that the music describes. Nelsons, who grew up in the USSR in the years leading to the iron curtain’s fall, has in the past expressed the difficulty he has experienced in getting the BSO’s players to understand how Shostakovich’s environment plays into his music because of their lack of experience with it. One can detect similar sentiments in a bonus track of a rehearsal from a 2001 recording of the Eighth Symphony made by fellow Latvian Mariss Jansons with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

This performance seemed like the antithesis of the American Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording of the Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, in which Bernstein handles the deeply passionate third movement incredibly but delivers a controversial, and in my opinion poor, reading of the fourth movement by significantly increasing the tempo in its final minutes. Perhaps the playing of the BSO signals a new era of Shostakovich performances in the U.S., one in which our conductors and orchestral players perform with a greater understanding of the meaning of the music. Personally, I found that the BSO and Nelsons handled the incredibly lengthy crescendos of the first and fourth movements stunningly, yet less impressive were the second and third movements, during which I found my concentration slipping. Overall, the orchestra seemed better prepared to handle the concerted maniacal upward trends of the first and fourth movements at a broad tempo than the almost bipolar highs and lows of the second and third.

I wish to reinforce this was an exemplary performance of the Leningrad Symphony, and one that I would not be surprised might assist with another Grammy win in the near future. Hearing Symphony Hall ring out with the intensity of these sounds from the height of World War II is an experience that will linger with me for a long time. If Beethoven can be considered the timeless revolutionary composer of the past, perhaps Shostakovich might become the timeless revolutionary composer of the present.

The BSO will also be performing Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony in subscription performances at Symphony Hall April 27-May 2 and the Suite from the Incidental Music to King Lear May 4-6.