August 09, 2017

Music Defeats War

Music Defeats War
In a Leningrad street after a German air raid. {Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #601181 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0}

One thing has always had the power to connect humankind across time and space: music.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia, and later that year laid siege to Leningrad (known today as St. Petersburg). The siege lasted more than two years and killed at least a million people. The conditions in Leningrad during the siege were unimaginably terrible – soldiers died trying to defend the city, while its inhabitants succumbed to illness or hunger. Dead bodies littered the streets, since few could spare the energy to give them a proper burial. In desperation, some resorted to cannibalism.

During these dark times, humanity was revealed at both its worst… and its best. At the height of the horrors of the siege, Karl Eliasberg, a music conductor, received orders to begin rehearsals of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It was nearly impossible for Eliasberg to find enough musicians for his orchestra. An order had to be issued to soldiers at the battlefront, calling for anyone with musical ability to join the orchestra. In this way, rehearsing the symphony united and inspired the people of Leningrad, demonstrating that the people of Leningrad would never give in.

Even when Eliasberg had enough musicians, they had no energy to play their instruments. For they not only had to struggle for food, they also had to deal with their loved ones dying. One in three people perished during the siege. Yet the musicians persevered. On August 9, 1942, despite the odds, the Seventh Symphony was played in Leningrad and broadcast throughout the city and the country. Thankfully, there were no German air raids to interrupt the performance.

A member of the audience, Olga Kvade, recalls, “On the one hand I wanted to cry, but at the same time there was a sense of pride. ‘Damn you, we have an orchestra! We’re at the Philharmonic Hall, so you Germans stay where you are!’ We were surrounded by Germans. They were shelling us, but there was this feeling of superiority.”

The very Germans that she spoke of were listening that day. Their conditions were also bleak, and many soldiers were only there because it was their duty. Everyone who heard the music was moved by it – this stunning act of defiance – regardless of what side of the war they were on.

Shostakovich faced criticism for the piece, as many felt it was too simplistic. Some also believed he had inserted some anti-Stalin undertones. Regardless, in the time and place, his Seventh Symphony, simply named “Leningrad,” was incredibly powerful. It went on to become his most famous piece. Even today, listening to it can give a hint of what the people of Leningrad must have experienced during the invasion. For a little more than 78 minutes, the people of Leningrad showed the world the best of humanity.

Listen to the Seventh Symphony performed.

Dmitry Shostakovich speaks briefly, then plays part of the first movement of the Seventh Symphony.

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