Siege Diaries: 3/15/2020

Moving on to the second movement of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad:

Shostakovich titled the second movement ‘Memories’. They are sad memories. Sad because it is so hard to dance now. It is even hard to remember how you used to dance. The central section is an anger of bitterness. Bitter that the only dancing that occurs now is a forced and unnatural one. The emptiness that follows is perfectly orchestrated. The harps, making their first appearance after at least half an hour, attempt to console. But the rhythms of the flutes are unaffected and the bass clarinet is left to sing the melody bleakly, staring out into the nihilistic future. Only the alto flute at the very end gives some cause for hope. For many people, hope was all they had.  — Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, on the second movement of Shostakovich’s 7th Sy,mphony

We’re not quite there yet.  But it is instructive to remember that neither was Shostakovich. The memories of this slow scherzo movement, which may or may not have been titled Memories by the composer, were fresh.  It had only been a couple of months ago that things had been normal–Shostakovich was preparing for exams for his Conservatory students after a May vacation with his wife, and had tickets to a soccer game-which was called off– on the day the invasion occurred.

Like the rest of the Seventh Symphony, the second movement was written in the early days of the Siege of Leningrad, when these memories of what had once been normal life were still fresh.  Shostakovich began the symphony in July 1941, the month after the German invasion, and over the next two months he wrote the second and third movements as the Nazis crept ever closer.  The city of Leningrad had thrown itself into panicked preparation, building fortifications around the city and preparing for the coming invasion.  Shostakovich himself had tried to volunteer for the army, but was turned away due to his poor eyesight (and it is doubtful that even if he had had perfect vision that someone of his stature would have been accepted.)  Instead, he joined his fellow musicians digging trenches and fortifications, and as the threat from the air intensified, he patrolled the roof of the Conservatory as a volunteer fireman, tasked to douse any incendiaries.  Again, once the city was eventually under more constant bombardment, it is likely that these duties were largely ceremonial.  By September 8, which historians designate as the formal beginning of the siege, plans were already being made to evacuate musicians and others in the arts to a safer location in the eastern Soviet Union. Shostakovich was working on the third movement at about this time, and played the first two movements on the piano for friends on September 17, to the “dull thud of falling bombs”, as Elizabeth Wilson relates.  She quotes Valerian Bogdanov Beresovsky, who was there, regarding the second movement:

The enormous sheets of manuscript paper, lying open on the composer’s desk, testified to the grandiose orchestral setting. Shostakovich played nervously, but with great elan. It seemed that he aimed to draw out of the piano every nuance or orchestral colour. It made a colossal impression. This is an extraordinary example of a synchronized, instant creative reaction to events as they are being lived through.

Shostakovich resisted the initial round of evacuations, but in early October, he, too, was evacuated.  I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

The second movement resonates for me in these early days of our own siege.  The initial invasion has taken place, but we’re not quite sure of what the future holds.   It’s easy to focus on what was lost, those memories of events just a couple of weeks ago so fresh in mind.  Some of us have tried to pretend that nothing has changed, and for me, that is the outburst in the middle of the movement, and it is dripping with bitterness as I see people who are seemingly continuing with their plans for parties and events as the world closes down around them.

Last night, I socialized online with friends.  Just a week ago, this was planned to be an in-person gathering. It was nice to see friendly faces again, to catch up on their lives, to make silly jokes.  But then I read of other friends going out to bars or other gatherings.  I know for some of them, it was one last dance before they, too, entered their bunkers, but there are others who don’t seem to yet realize what we are up against, still convinced that this is a minor illness blown out of proportion.  There are some who do not seem to care–they are young, perhaps, and the disease is mild for them.  To extend the metaphor, they’re still listening to the first movement while we’re living the second.

And it’s worse looking south to the United States, where national leadership has failed to get ahead of the virus and is only now implementing measures that may be too little, too late. I know well the ache of having to cancel long-standing plans, but I keep seeing people on my feeds barely cognizant of reality, lulled by the fact that in their area, there are few, if any, cases.   I see some states stepping up admirably to lead in the face of a decapitated response, but others, who have believed the endless stream of lies from the White House, are only now realizing that maybe they should do something.

I care about humanity.  CEOs and billionaires are not going to save us–we’re going to need to do that ourselves, and the 1% are going to need to jump on board.  We need to work to strengthen our weakest links, because to excise them serves to fragment society, not to build it up.  Mutual benefit is key to the survival of society.  This is not a political ideology.  I do not pretend this will be easy–but seeing how it can work (or not work) in the face of a challenge like the one we are facing can be instructive.

Yesterday, walking along the trails near my house, I passed by many others out doing the same, some with their dogs (almost half of which seemed to be golden retrievers, for some reason). Almost to a one, they said hello–strangers, perhaps, but newly cognizant that we are all part of something larger.  In Italy, residents confined to their apartments are singing from their balconies. including this achingly beautiful performance.  I see friends working to set up venues for musicians and other performers to continue to share their talents and to receive support.  Online classes are starting to sprout.  And we’re finding ways to have the kind of human contact with our families and communities of choice that even most introverts crave.

Today, I look back to see what has slipped between our fingers and shattered. Going forward, the key is to pick up those pieces, knowing that they will never fit together quite the same way again.  But kindness, and the arts, and community, I believe, are what will bind us.