The million dead symphony: music against Hitler and Stalin

A book tells the story of Shostakovich’s “Seventh”, which the Russian composer wrote in Nazi-besieged Leningrad, watching a million compatriots die after 900 days of siege

It was the most beautiful and forceful challenge to Hitler. Dimitri Shostakovich witnessed how the Nazi troops massacred the population of Leningrad (formerly Saint Petersburg) with a relentless bombardment and almost a million of its neighbors died during almost 900 days of siege. But hunger, cold, fear and deprivation could not withstand the resistance of the city nor the spirit of the Russian composer, who, under the bombs, began to write a Symphony that would tell the world that, despite the desolation, Hitler could not win.The story of the score, which crossed the world before reaching the United States, and that of Shostakovich himself, who suffered consecutive atrocities from Stalin and Hitler, is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of music. In 1942, a half-starved orchestra (literally, one of its members was rescued while he was still breathing from a pile of corpses) performed the symphony in the once aristocratic city turned into ruins. A book, “Symphony for the City of the Dead” MT Anderson (Es Pop Ediciones) recounts this great epic.

But before we get to the second psycho, let’s get to the first. St. Petersburg, the city of the tsars, was one of the first targets of the Bolshevik revolution, which saw in the symbolism of the tsars’ capital a propaganda coup, just like the capture of the Winter Palace. After Lenin’s death in 1924, the city was renamed after him after the leader of the revolution, but his successor had other methods. Stalin’s purges began in Leningrad under the name “The Great Terror” in 1935. The new leader, who despised the life and customs of the modern city that looked to Europe instead of Russia, determined that 12-year-old children they could be executed as adults.Arrest quotas were even established to obtain slave laborers. “It didn’t matter who or why. They had to satisfy certain amounts of workers, “Anderson writes in the book.The composer himself was targeted by the NKVD secret services, which they accused of being an elitist. The dictator was furious when he attended the premiere of “Lady Macbbeth of the Mtsensk District” at the Bolshoi Theater: “it is chaos and noise, it is not music,” said the satrap, and “Pravda” picked up his words. That article was followed by many in which he was described as a “traitor to the people.” All Leningrad musicians publicly turned their backs on him. Those who interceded for him before Stalin were killed by the NKVD. He thought of committing suicide, of fleeing from the USSR. Shostakovich said goodbye to his family waiting for his execution. Soldiers in the Russian army were threatened with immediate execution if they abandoned their post. Everyone lived under the constant paranoia of arrest and summary execution. Members of the same family betrayed each other.

Stalin’s military inoperability

Then, Hitler breached the non-aggression pact with the Soviet dictator and the Germans entered Russia, destroying everything in their path. The Führer had foreseen a rapid occupation of the city and no one was betting that he would not achieve it. No one can explain how he was able to deceive Stalin, who ignored dozens of warnings from his secret services and even from Nazi deserters. As the Luftwaffe shelled their territory, the communist artillerymen did not return fire because they were not officially at war.The massive German army of 4 million soldiers (including volunteers from the Blue Division) laid waste to the entire Soviet West and, although it was trapped in the mud, with the arrival of winter, the ground froze and the Wehrmacht drew a I encircle Leningrad confident that, without supplies and under hellish bombardment, it would be a matter of days. They were wrong. The ease with which they arrived and, especially, the contempt that the Nazis felt for the Slavs, whom they considered a decadent and subhuman culture (and whom they wanted to erase from the face of the Earth), would lead them to a feeling of superiority of the one who woke up too late.Before the Germans were at the gates of the city, Shostakovich had already begun writing his Seventh Symphony, a composition that was meant to speak of what was happening and convey emotion and hope. But he was still not aware of the horror that he was going to experience. The composer reluctantly agreed to his wife’s pressure to leave the city, but it was too late. The next day, all the railway tracks had been blown up . An extraordinary number of Leningraders refused to leave (636,000 left and two and a half million remained).and they endured unspeakable torment even though they had to slaughter their pets to eat them and make soup out of the wallpaper. They boiled pieces of leather (from coats or belts) and fed on corpses that no one buried. Also of children who walked alone.

Shells, incendiary bombs and alarm sirens sounded while Shostakovich, in his apartment, was completing the movements of his symphony moved by a sense of superior mission. White flashes and the color of the orange sky. The noise of engines, the hiss of shells, the crash of impacts. Screams of despair Hell must have looked a lot like that. The Nazis’ plan was designed: they had scientifically calculated how long it would take them to die of starvation and they would not accept starving civilians who surrendered in exchange for food.«The Führer has decided to erase Saint Petersburg from the face of the Earth. Any surrender must be refused,” Hitler ruled. The first winter was hard, but the second was atrocious. Leningraders fled walking across the frozen Lake Ladoga and many drowned under or on the ice.