Spring Symphonies: 27/60 Shostakovich: Symphony No 7 “Leningrad”

There have been thousands of words written about the extraordinary circumstances of both the creation, Russian premiere and American premiere of this symphony - I will perhaps only touch on those aspects in this piece but it is a compelling story worthy of a film (or an opera) I suspect.  The horrors and heroism of the siege of Leningrad are the symphony’s subject - though their full extent were scarcely understood at the time. Half a million died in a 900 day siege - the horrors only revealed as people dared speak of them.  The incredibility of the Russian’s role as allies and comrades and victims in the midst of their war compared to their position at the end of the war and thereafter wasn’t in the composer’s mind.  The story has many facets - the history has a number of versions.  The music though has had an extraordinary fate to be loved and reviled and loved broadly in tune with the warmth or otherwise of the relationship between East and West.

Lauded at the time - not least for the depleted Leningrad orchestra’s performance broadcast on loudspeakers to the besiegers and well as the besieged.  This symphony was not by the time of the 1980s when I encountered it, in favour.  It was received wisdom that this was not high quality Shostakovich.  Suspicion fell on the lack of invention and simple tone of the Seventh symphony.  The banality of some of it’s devices and of course.  As with all Soviet symphonies of this time a composer’s response to a situation was never in question the demands of the Soviet regime were always in mind with indigenous symphonies of the period.  Though in this instance i think Shostakovich’s patriotic impulse was strong.

I’d say this was a great symphony because of it’s time and place and reputation.  What I’d also say now having known and admired it for 30 years, is that it is also a finer symphony than the verdicts of Virgil Thomson, Sergei Rachmaninov and others allow.  Not in the clever mould of post war sophistication, not even as ingenious as Eroica, but clever in the way it became the hallmark in popular imagination of the simply grotesquery of war.  TV loves this music - it is straightforward - though there is plenty of skill in it - and direct, though there is some subtly.  It is in my view, sincere, indeed it maybe with the Eighth, a rare example of a symphony that does what it appears to want to do in Shostakovich’s output.  Though the usual analysis of impulse, authorial intent and political background has served to build a great story behind it - but if we concentrate on the music what’s to be found.  Whether it for or against the regime will be debated ad nauseum - as Karajan said, it is the music that matters.

It lays it on the line bar 1 - the theme steps out like Strauss up the mountain and needs no preparatory throat clearing.  The striving climbing nature of this theme has an air of confidence or at least provides the secure base for the music that follows - a tight, tense but melody which repeats with some variations.  It is four square and full perhaps of bluster - but the solo flute ushers in a reflective yearning melody which make sits way round the orchestra.  The seeds of the whole symphony are planted here.  This is not startlingly original music or even beautiful music and as it drops away perhaps fading through lack of energy a side drum breaks out….

We are only a fifth of the way through a 25 minute opening movement.  Those expecting a Mahlerian impetus now get their fill-up.  The March has been criticised but in the brash, banal world of Soviet musical invention this something of a master-stroke for me.  It takes on Ravel’s Bolero and magnifies it’s loungers and orchestration until the cuckoo becomes too big for the nest.  It is a grotesque, it is also very well handled as such. There’s something here to displease everyone and yet the ear delights in the process and some of the detail.  The impetus for this movement could have all manner of explanations - but it is not out of court for a work by Shostakovich though it’s scale is pleasingly public.  But we should also look to Richard Strauss and Wagner as progenitors of this kind of orchestral chaos.  It culminates in a fulsome statement that drills its pointer home by blunt force.

The remaining 7 or 8 minutes are somewhat of a return to the tone of the beginning of the movement though in more pastoral mood and in slow iterations the movement - melodramatic as it has been, fades with a pleasing coda underlined by the side drum reminding us of the preceding madness.

The next movement starts as one of those typically spiky Allegrettos that the composer moulded so well. Again we can speculate until the cows come home on this type how he came to the conclusion that the mood should be broken by a feisty almost comic almost sinister section - redolent of the playground at first but soon of the madhouse.  The music morphs into something more akin to the Night Music in Mahler 7 but there’s a restlessness here (and it might be argued through out the symphony).  The opening themes return in foreshorten form. Its over and it feels wholly deficient.

The wind chorale theme which opens the third movement seems to me on more secure ground - heart felt, telling and worth thinking hard about.  It is grimly desolate and sad at points.  It has a isolated depraved feeling and even when a flute and strings sing a lonely wistful song, I’m not sure how long we hang in this wilderness but when we do break free it is into an urgent and frenzied at times ludicrous galumphing dance.  This eventually dies down - to a repeat of the slower material which takes us to a close.

The finely detailed opening of the last movement gives familiar listeners to where we are heading - though the music which will end the work has been heard before.  The writing here is eerie - in the manner of the Eleventh symphony and constrained - it’s is on the borders of something greater than we have seen.  The contrapuntal impulse takes over after about 2 minutes and drives the symphony to something approaching confident resolution - though there’s some sticky patches of repetition which - like a musical stammer - disrupt the journey’s smooth progress.  It is the manic acts which become the meat of the symphony which build up - trumpets and drums and swirling winds and strings fail to quell.  The wind sound a chorale at one point but there’s competition from a driving rhythm which takes over to a passage of some savagery. And in a marvellous piece of deceleration we move to something much more Earth-bound, the movement seems to be on a switch back between elation and depression, action and inaction or just being dragged back into regulation order.  The assembling of earlier themes has greta potency here - its a bit like Bruckner - the preparation has all been for this passage of recollection, representation and resolution.  The mood darkens with lone woodwind piping sad calls. With 5 or so minutes to go we might be forgiven for confusion and some anxiety about how this will resolve into a great symphony, played the world over, respected for it’s folk memory of a terrible time.  The bassoons in concert with high winds in counter-rhythm usher in a sinuous string melody which will carry us through.  The whole orchestra is mobilised to a great series of chords over the horns - the terrible rolling, ominous gargantuan truth of this symphony screams out. There is a terrible quality to this major key resolution - the darkness remains in triumph.  It is momentally morbid: like something out of Poe.  In a fearsome final passage alarms ring out over the resolute determined of the C major climax.  The music doesn’t not spell either message unequivocally (returning to the real world - as we know now that terror was not just about a German victory, equally terrifying was a German defeat).  Wherever we look in this symphony what seeks to be pure is sullied, what seeks to be celebratory is compromised and optimism is always guarded.

If I was to characterise the two responses to Stalinist oppression and/or war I’ve covered - where Prokofiev 6 was ambiguous, Shostakovich 7 has a nervous uncertainty which will unsettle some and drive others mad.  The genius of Shostakovich was not to pull the wool over the regime’s eyes but give the people a moment of recognition that amongst the corpses of war and the corpses of oppression, victory, albeit terrified victory could be a unifying factor.

Here is Mstislav Rostropovich paying tribute to his friend’s conducting his Seventh Symphony


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