A cry of the heart against death: Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony

Gavin Plumley surveys Shostakovich’s wartime ‘Leningrad’ symphony

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The Independent Culture

Certain pieces are in a musician’s blood. Conductor Semyon Bychkov feels that Shostakovich’s Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony is in his veins: “You could say it’s genetic,” he remarks. Bychkov was born in Leningrad and his mother endured the 872-day siege on the city by the Germans, from 1941 to 1944, during which Shostakovich completed this extraordinary work.

The symphony was premiered in March 1942 in Kuybïshev, where Shostakovich had eventually agreed to shelter from the attack. It was then smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and, following performances in London and New York, came to be viewed as one of the most potent musical documents of the 20th century, commemorating those who struggled against fascism. And yet Bychkov, who conducts the piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican on Thursday, maintains that there is much more to it than its wartime inception.

The first image that comes to Bychkov’s mind while preparing is that of his mother, as a giddy school leaver on 22 June 1941, 11 years before he was born. “Throughout the country, graduation balls are taking place for those finishing high school. It’s a big celebration. In Leningrad, it’s the White Nights,” he says, referring to northern Russia’s famed twilit season, “so the city is bursting with young people, by the river, partying, celebrating. Some are dreaming of university or going to the conservatoire. The future is very beautiful and very mysterious.” It’s a scene described, in effect, in the lusty opening bars of the symphony. “That first stride has a real sense of energy and optimism,” Bychkov notes, “and when the second theme comes, it’s a dream put into sound.”

But that very day, the Germans broke over the border, defying the Nazi–Soviet Pact. And they were approaching Leningrad fast. “That was their welcome to life,” Bychkov says of his mother and her peers. Their sense of shock can be gleaned from the middle section of the first movement, beginning with a whispered snare drum and building to a glowering orchestral battalion.

The symphony continues for four epic movements. After the initial battle narrative comes an eerie intermezzo. More secure is the nostalgic third movement, though that is swept away by a caustic finale, eking its way towards a dazzlingly victorious coda.

Shostakovich continued to write the piece during the high summer of 1941, by which time the Germans were on the outskirts of his home town. Bombs were falling incessantly, forcing the composer’s family to hide in the cellar, while Shostakovich sat upstairs with his friends Isaak Glickman and Ivan Sollertinsky, defiantly playing his symphony at the piano.

“What they heard,” Bychkov insists, “had so much connection with what they were living. It wasn’t anything abstract. It was real life.”

But while the potency of the piece draws on the experience of the siege, Shostakovich had reportedly begun work before the Germans invaded. As he explained in his memoirs, this was not just a programmatic work about Operation Barbarossa; it was music against aggression full stop. So while that first movement is characterised by the “invasion” section, Bychkov rightly asks, “an invasion by whom?”

After all, Russia’s history is dominated by aggressive authority figures. The population has, as Bychkov sees it, an “essentially slave-like mentality”, although serfdom officially ended in 1861. “Like the Germans, they are afraid of chaos and anarchy. Hence the pattern of autocratic regimes, from Peter the Great to the present day.” The Leningrad Symphony, with all its sarcasm, violence, even love – ending with a giddy blast of C major, as in Beethoven’s heroic Fifth Symphony – shows the complexity of that connection between its populace and those who hold the keys to power. And what could be more pertinent to the current situation in Russia?

Bychkov has not lived there since 1975, having left for America because he felt he “had to be free”. But he remains a keen observer of events in his motherland. And in the tensions between the establishment, the people and the response of the Russian media, Bychkov identifies “the contradictions of a country asking whether it wants to be free, is even able to be free and if it wants to be in the east or the west”.

These are questions also facing Ukraine, where Bychkov’s father was born. But both there and in Russia it is still the people, rather than those in power, who show a lust for progress.“Now, at least,” Bychkov tenders optimistically, “arrests are not happening in their droves, as they once were, and all these polarities, all these opinions, from the most beautiful to the most mediocre, are out in the open.”

Returning to 1941, those schisms are equally present in Shostakovich’s music, with its heroic, patriotic strides sounding against sardonic,  piccolo-fifing pastiches of operetta tunes and party marches. While some interpret these themes within the context of the siege, Bychkov insists that “the power of its art ensures that it really is not just about 1941, but about the world”.

Shostakovich was shrewd enough, given the pressures placed upon him by the regime, to let the world believe that his music was about the enemy without, but it was clearly also about the enemy within.

“Yet there is sustenance in this piece,” Bychkov maintains, “and we must deliver beauty and consolation, maybe even revelation.”

Drawing on his mother’s experience of the siege, his father’s work as a medical nurse during the war and his adolescence under the Communists, Bychkov is better primed than anyone to approach Shostakovich’s narrative of solidarity. “It is a cry of the heart,” he says, “against death and for life.”

Though, given the cyclic nature of Russian history, we may doubt the bright future envisaged in its final bars. Asked whether he shares the symphony’s sense of hope, particularly for his native country, Bychkov responds that “if the past is the proof, there is no hope. Yet the present depends on us. And it determines the future. So there might be hope after all”.

Semyon Bychkov conducts Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at the Barbican Centre on 16 January. The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.