Siege Diaries: Day 1
Looking at the last thing I wrote, just a little over two weeks ago, it feels like a relic from another time and place. And in many ways, it is. It was a world where I went to work, saw friends, went to concerts, planned my next craft project, and planned for future travel. It was a world where I celebrated my birthday with a day off, a massage, my favourite foods, and a concert featuring a charismatic pianist playing Beethoven. Storm clouds were gathering, for sure, but it was still possible to look the other way and enjoy the sunlight.
All of that is gone now. It disappeared with remarkable alacrity, to settle into a new normal that itself is unstable, subject to change on an hourly basis. The storm has metastasized into a hurricane of epic proportions, and it will change our world forever. What emerges in the stark daylight once it has passed, no one really knows.
It is ironic that the next of my long-planned trips that has now been cancelled was a trip to Chicago, where I was to hear the Chicago Symphony play Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony under the baton of Valery Gergiev–because I believe the word that best describes my own emotions right now is “under siege.”
I can listen to the first movement of the Leningrad and hear the story play out, from the assertive, strong theme that opens the work–a city goes about its business in the glorious, strange light of the White Nights, a city still struggling from the impacts of the Great Purge, but doing the things that they have always done–working, shopping for groceries, going to school, and doing what leisure activities they can find, especially, of course, playing music. You can picture the city, a busy place, with its gorgeous pastel-coloured palaces and museums, its massive factories, the wide Neva river running through its centre. The initial theme is a little unstable, with shifting time signatures, but then settles down into a lyrical section, with lovely woodwind melodies over a long-held chord, and then a searing, wistful violin solo brings the entire section to a conclusion, to be interrupted And then, off in the distance, the rat-a-tat of a snare drum and a quiet melody in pizzicato strings. It’s initially soft, lilting, and lighthearted–if not for those snare drums. This is the (in)famous ‘invasion theme’. It’s next picked up by a solo flute. Shostakovich worried that listeners would think he’d copied Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, and one can see the comparison clearly in that second iteration. We’re going to hear this same theme a total of twelve times, louder each time, bring in more and more of the orchestra. On the fourth rendition, an ostinato rhythm of five notes is introduced that will be traded around the orchestra, and on the tenth rendition, a five-note descant theme. Per David Hurwitz: “What Shostakovich has done is simply to take the most primitive, basic bits of his first subject and turn them into a trite, irritating little march that is incapable of doing anything but get louder…The opening theme’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements are thus shackled and constrained, mindlessly mechanized, and rendered banal.” So, the roots of this obsessive, relentless earworm that is said to represent not just the invading German army that would first be heard in the distance, a ‘disturbance in the Force’ (to use a completely foreign-but-apt phrase) that gradually comes to hold the entire first movement hostage, but also drumbeat of oppression under Stalin in the Soviet Union. But Shostakovich had a more abstract interpretation: “this music is about all forms of terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit.” (Hurwitz, citing Flora Litvinova, who was present the first time the symphony was played through by Shostakovich on the piano).
And, of course, it doesn’t end well. At the loud climax, as the original tune fights to retain dominance in the chaos, “the music devours itself from within.” You can hear the pain and the outcry in this section when the opening theme–the memory of better days—plays out over booming bass drums and tam tam and cymbals. And then, after all has dissolved away to nothing, that first, confident theme is played tentatively over a long, held chord, first by strings, and then, alone, by the flute. Next a solo bassoon wanders in the ruins (represented by some prominent, short chords on the piano–an instrument that hasn’t been heard in the piece until now) playing a mournful version of that lyrical second subject. I can just hear the winter of 1941-42 in this section, when the noose has tightened completely around the city. Those piano chords to me sound like the sound of anti-aircraft guns in the distance, as the shocked, starving citizens move through the city in a daze.
The first theme does return, then, feeling weighed down by exhaustion, but then transitioning back into the second theme, shimmering again in the strings, memories this time not of the horror that has passed, but of the beauty that once was. It could end here, but no–one last time, ominous horns sound, and then the snare returns, the invasion theme heard one last time in the distance. It is not over.
Shostakovich began this movement before the siege even started, so the music is not and could not be literal depictions of any events. “Music, real music, can never be literally tied to a theme,” Flora Litvinova recalls him saying. But when the symphony was premiered in March of 1942 and quickly spread around the war-torn world, it was hard not to see those events, particularly in this movement and the final one, and Shostakovich himself allowed the title ‘Leningrad’ to be added to it. And when the work was premiered in the still-besieged city on August 9, 1942–the very day that Hitler had planned to be sitting, victorious, in the Astoria Hotel in a starved, subdued and shattered Leningrad–it became larger than life–a story I will continue in my next post.
For now, listening to this first movement gives me comfort that others have trod the paths of uncertainty before, and allows me to mourn for what has passed. It helps contextualize the unending, relentless news of the creep of pandemic–from its first, distant notes in China through where we are now. And it gives me hope–because I know the stories of how music and poetry kept the besieged city alive and human in the days when death surrounded them, when books were boiled to make a soup out of the glue, when all the cats and dogs had vanished from the city, and when some, in the city’s darkest hours of need, resorted to cannibalism. I still have my books, I have my cats, and there is still abundant food, and I am confident Famine will not accompany its fellow Horseman to this battlefield. We face a different foe. It is unrelenting in its own way–but what will see us through and give us hope is the knowledge that humanity has found light in darkness in the past through words and music and the arts, through simple kindnesses, and from the willingness to do what is needed to protect and support each other. And knowing it, naming it, and fighting it with all of the weapons of knowledge and science that we have at our disposal is our best chance at victory.
And for me: I remind myself of my discovery two years ago of how important writing is to me. Bereft for now of concerts to experience, or travels to narrate, bereft even of most face-to-face contact, I write to quell the anxiety, the quickening heartbeat, the interrupted and restless sleep, the nervous footbounce. There are books to read. There is a viola rented a year ago that I have neglected. There are things to create with thread and paint. And outside, along the escarpment, the first signs of spring–the abundant robins, the whit-chirr of the redwinged blackbird, the minor key song of the mourning dove; the shoots of daffodils and narcissus a promise of future flowers, the rush of water telling a story of coming warmth. Spring will come, as it always does, and that foundation lends me strength and hope.
Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1989.