9 August 1942: first performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Leningrad

Following the post about Shostakovich’s Seventh, I was asked for the story about the first Leningrad performance. Laurel E. Fay has written about it so well that I shall quote her (entirely referenced of course – not plagiarism), along with Elizabeth Wilson. Both are fascinating accounts of Shostakovich’s life and work.

Laurel E. Fay, ‘The War Years’, Shostakovich: A Life

‘During the course of the war, virtually every Soviet city that could mobilize sufficient instrumental forces to tackle the work gave it at least one performance. Of special significance for Shostakovich personally were the performances by the Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, still in evacuation. The composer spent most of the  month of July 1942 in Novosibirsk, where in addition to attending Mravinsky’s rehearsals and performances of the Seventh Symphony he was joyfully reunited with Sollertinsky and other friends displaced from Leningrad. He also performed his Piano Quintet and the Four Romances on Texts by Pushkin at a concert of his music.

‘Without question the most remarkable performance of the Seventh Symphony was the one on 9 August 1942 in the blockaded Leningrad, an event of legendary import all by itself. At the end of the first winter under siege, city authorities went to extraordinary lengths to revive the city’s cultural life. The surviving members [around 14 of the original players] of the Radio Orchestra (the only symphony orchestra remaining in Leningrad) who were still capable of performing were joined by players from other institutions; some were even called back from the trenches. Special rations were granted so that they might regain sufficient strength to perform. Even before the ragtag group of forty or fifty players had made its first concert appearance on 5 April 1942, conducted by the Radio Orchestra’s Karl Eliasberg (who had played chamber music with Mitya twenty years earlier when they both studied at the Petrograd Conservatory), the determination to perform Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was already firm.

‘The obstacles to performance in the devastated city were enormous. Overcoming them became a matter of civic, even military pride. In early July, the score of Shostakovich’s symphony was flown by night to the blockaded city. A team of copyists worked day and night – despite shortages of paper, pencils, and pens – to prepare the parts. More serious was the insufficiency of brass players to tackle Shostakovich’s score; most had to be tracked down at the front. By the end of July the orchestra was rehearsing full time. The concert hall on 9 August 1942 was packed, and the audience applauded with all the strength they could muster. The concert was also broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city and, in psychological warfare, to the German troops stalled outside the city. They had been targets of an intensive artillery bombardment in advance ordered by the commander of the Leningrad front to ensure their silence during the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh.’  (pp. 132-133)

Elizabeth Wilson, ‘The War Years – A Respite’, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

‘Eliasberg summoned up all his energy to organize reinforcements; retired musicians were ferreted out, and soldiers with musical training were released from army units defending Leningrad. Eliasberg himself, weak from hunger, fainted one day on the long walk home in the transportless city. To help restore his strength, the authorities provided the conducted with a bicycle, living quarters in the vicinity of the Philharmonic hall, a telephone and food supplies. Likewise, the orchestral musicians were issued with extra rations.

‘The creation of an enormous orchestra in these conditions seemed hardly credible. Their performance of the Seventh Symphony was a feat that fired up the imagination of the outside world. The playwright Alexander Kron summed up the Leningraders’ reaction to the music: “People who no longer knew how to shed tears of sorrow and misery now cried from sheer joy.’ Never before had music acquired such heroic force or become such an effective symbol of patriotism. Shostakovich’s fame was at its zenith.’ (p. 174)

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