Shostakovich Symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 ‘Leningrad’

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Marriss Jansons

One of the largest symphonies in the standard repertoire, along with most of Mahler, bits of Bruckner, and some Shostakovich (but this is his longest). This recording comes in at around 75 minutes.

I remember back when I was trying to speak intelligently about the fifth and how it felt like an overwhelming challenge to try to describe what an incredible achievement the piece is, not just because it’s a symphony, plopped down on paper into a score on a stand somewhere, but because of what it represented, what it accomplished, what it said, differently, to different people.

Need I say how heavy a work this is? It’s subtitled ‘Leningrad.’ Again, to understand the full import of this work (which I do not), it’s necessary to understand such histories as those of the Second World War, the Soviet Union, Shostakovich himself, the Zhdanov Decree, Stalin, Lenin, and on and on. There could perhaps be no greater example, not one I can think of at the moment, of how music is a representation of life, good and bad, personal and public, political, artistic, beautiful and grotesque (except for maybe the fifth).

Wikipedia says the following:

The piece soon became very popular in both the Soviet Union and the West as a symbol of resistance to Nazitotalitarianism and militarism. It is still regarded as the major musical testament of the estimated 25 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives in World War II. The symphony is played frequently at the Leningrad Cemetery, where half a million victims of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad are buried. As a condemnation of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the work is particularly representative of the political responsibilities that Shostakovich felt he had for the state, regardless of the conflicts and criticisms he faced throughout his career with Soviet censors and Joseph Stalin.

Now for the music.

The first movement is by far the longest, and begins surprisingly… warmly, positively, richly, with unison strings. This sounds lavish and welcoming, but its thickness and strength are kind of indicative of what’s to come in a more violent manner. The second theme of this work, the one that makes it so long, is a 22-bar ostinato that works as the second theme, first by strings, then flute, and other instruments in a repetitive, almost hypnotic kind of passage, always accompanied by the snare drum. Wikipedia points to the significance of this melody as coming from some potentially significant places, like one of his own operas that first got him in trouble, as well as a German patriotic song. It’s amazing the power of a good ostinato, and here, it begins to sound militaristic, political, forceful, and menacing. It’s called “the invasion theme.” That’s not necessarily what I’d call it, but it has an unsettling persistence. In all, it’s repeated a dozen times before climaxing into some new material. The movement (thankfully) offers some repose covering the content again.

Phew. After that, we have the shortest movement of the work, and it serves as a scherzo and “an intermezzo.” I guess it can in contrast with the length of the other movements. It, too, in the beginning, feels almost light, but there’s always that air, almost a fear, that the ‘invasion theme’ will return. There’s definitely a mood that’s been set, and this neoclassical-type fugue at the beginning has a phenomenally moving effect placed like it has been. Oboe and strings dominate this first bit, and it’s really captivating. The central passage is much more lively, with that screeching clarinet suddenly sounding ominous and pained, heralding in a stormy, unsettling passage with low brass before returning to the opening material. There’s another ostinato here too.

The third movement is also cast in a slow-fast-slow kind of structure, but much longer, at 18-20 minutes. It is one of the most variable movements of the entire piece. As the ‘slow movement,’ it has its slow parts, quiet, solemn, pained, but the contrast between say, a flute solo, and a full-orchestra climax is indicative of the scope of the entire work.

Somehow part of this post seems to have gotten lost…. in any case, the final movement has some quiet, peaceful passages of its own, but it is still largely (obviously) full of tension and pain. It reminds me much of the composer’s fifth, a symphony that, when  viewed from different angles, means different things. Some might comment on how positively the work ends, in an almost celebratory or triumphant nature, but is it? To me, it’s the kind of celebration that says “yay, I’m still alive.” That indeed is a celebration, but perhaps one that everyone walks away from still battered and broken; walking away from tragedy, no one is left unscathed. This is the kind of celebration I hear, one of suffering, marred by tragedy, but tinged with enough positivity to make a difference.

The length of the piece made me think of Deems Taylor’s comment about Mahler 9, that “Someday, some real friends of Mahler’s will… reduce his works to the length that they would have been if the composer had not stretched them out of shape” and how the ninth should only last around twenty minutes. We haven’t talked about that piece yet, but it’s highly regarded as one of the greats. Granted, Taylor’s is a very dated statement, but still.

There’s something about the length of this work, its scope, the content there and the ground it covers, repetitive or not, that makes this work so incredibly powerful. A work doesn’t have to be long to be powerful. Beethoven’s fifth comes to mind, at 30-ish minutes, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral of about the same length. Anyway, despite its length and scope, to me at least, the work doesn’t wander like I felt Myaskovsky’s do, and even Lyapunov to some extent. There is always something worthwhile of my attention, something integral to the story being told, and it’s clear what that is, unlike some other hefty symphonies I’ve listened to. Sit back, strap in, and focus on what’s going on, because it all matters. It’s convincing in that way; there is, one might say, an ‘urgency’ present, a gravity of content that makes everything valid.

Secondly, despite the obvious power of things like heartrending bassoon solos, militaristic march-like ostinatos and tragic, ominous brassy passages, there’s a strange conflict, a dichotomy in this piece between the good and evil. On the one hand, it represents Soviet victory over Nazi totalitarianism during the Second World War, an evil no doubt, but also memorializes the millions who died in Soviet Russia during the same time. Its warm, robust, confident opening and triumphant, celebratory end bookend a work of incredible emotional scope, a work that very effectively shows, not tells, what life was like for many during one of the darkest times in human history. How you decide to look at it or interpret it is up to you, but it’s all there.

An entirely separate discussion is that of the premiere of the work, which has its own Wikipedia article. Starved, weakened performers, three of which who died during rehearsals, only had one chance to play the work through from beginning to end, and it was used as Soviet propaganda, broadcast to the German lines “as a form of psychological warfare.” If there was any doubt of the power of (classical) music, that should settle it.

The work, despite horrific conditions and all the rest, was an enormous success, getting itself a one-hour ovation. Different interpretations of the work have affected its reception in various places in the decades since its premiere, but many now (it seems, at least in my personal impression) regard the work as a masterpiece, which is an observation completely independent of liking it or not. It’s also considered one of the composer’s greatest achievements, definitely a work to be familiar with.

That, perhaps thankfully, is the darkest, heaviest spot we’ll be in on our Russian Symphony Series. Next week, we’ll be discussing our final pieces in the series, two revisits of the same piece, and the final jewel in this Russian crown of symphonic achievements.

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