Siege Diaries 3/17/2020

My own copy of Time Magazine, July 20, 1942.

Last night, I ended on a note of optimism, planning to pull out and tune my viola, which I did–but the only sounds that emanated from the instrument was the ‘sproing’ of a broken string.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, and it continues as I look at the final movement of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony.  The movement continues without pause (or attaca, to use the musical term) after the three notes on the tam-tam and strings that conclude the third movement.  But historically, there’s an enormous pause in between the two movements.  Shostakovich had wanted to stay in Leningrad, was even recorded for radio playing part of the first movement and talking about the intent of the work he was writing.  but he was (reluctantly) evacuated with his wife, Nina, and two young children on October 1, 1941.  Besides the stress of leaving an encircled city, the journey was fraught with issues.  He took very little with him other than some clothes and the scores to the symphony, his opera Lady Macbeth, and a piano transcription he had made of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.  The family flew out on a tiny military plane, Shostakovich’s three-year-old son Maxim wondering at the flashes of light–German anti-aircraft guns.  He stayed for a short time in Moscow–where he played the work-in-progress for friends–before boarding a train bound for the city of Kuibyshev (now known as Samara).  The train was packed to standing room with artists, composers, ballerinas from the Bolshoi, and musicians, and the trip took seven rather harrowing days as the train kept having to stop for military convoys.  He accidentally left his suitcases in Moscow, and almost lost his scores as well–but they were (thankfully) found.  He at first bunked in a school, sleeping on the floor without a mattress with hundreds of other people, before getting a room just for his family, and eventually, a three-room apartment with a piano and a bathroom.  It was only once he had a relatively peaceful environment that he was able to start composing again.

Blogger Sergey Baklykov posted a fascinating piece on Shostakovich in Kuibyshev/Samara a few days ago that shows some of the places where he lived.

Shostakovich completed the symphony on December 17, 1941.  He did not know it–as news from Leningrad was almost non-existent–but the besieged city was in its darkest hour.  Most citizens received a ration of just 125 grams of bread (in reality, largely adulterated by sawdust) per day.  All animals in the city vanished.  Shoes and belts and even books were boiled to make a thin soup.  There were incidents of cannibalism–but relatively few of them, surprisingly. Bodies of the deceased were sometimes simply left in the streets or cold, unheated, bombed-homes.  The lifeline of the city became the radio, where poets read their works and the click-click of a metronome was sometimes the only sound heard.  In all, as many as 1.5 million people died or were killed, with another 1.7 million evacuated over the course of the siege, out of a total population of perhaps 3.3 million before the war.

The symphony had its premiere in Kuibyshev on March 5, and in other Soviet cities during the rest of March.  The score was famously sent out of the USSR in the kind of operation that sounds like something from a spy thriller.  It premiered in London in June, and then in the US in July, where dueling superstar conductors vied to give the first performance – an honour that eventually fell to Arturo Toscanini–and where Shostakovich graced the cover of the July 20, 1942 issue of Time magazine in his fireman’s helmet from the previous September.  And then, almost miraculously, the symphony was played in Leningrad on August 9, 1942 with a patched-together, starving orchestra. Leningrad by this time was still encircled, but supplies were now getting through; the playing of the symphony was an act of defiance, broadcast on the radio, and even to the German troops who surrounded the city (after the Soviets opened up the artillery before the performance to ensure it was not interrupted.)

Shostakovich’s title for this fourth movement was “Victory”–a victory that was by no means certain when the work was completed, or when it was premiered;  by the time it was played in Leningrad hope was growing; somehow the city had survived almost a full year.  Shostakovich’s “victories” are almost always complicated.   The Chicago Symphony’s program notes:

In the finale, victory does not come at once. Shostakovich begins with little more than the timpani roll that concluded the slow movement and gradually adds other voices. A broad climax quickly unwinds; a single viola line is left hanging. Finally the music slowly and deliberately moves toward a grand conclusion, sprinkled with brass fanfares and cymbal crashes and forces its way into C major — the traditional key of victory. Even then, when the symphony’s opening theme returns to crown the moment, it is chock-full of notes that have no place in C major, and the final chords in that most brilliant of keys have a bitter ring to them.

It is difficult to overstate the impression of this movement, particularly the ending:  It’s the musical equivalent of defiant exhaustion.  It’s said that during the rehearsals, the famished wind players in Leningrad were passing out, lacking the stamina to make it through a 75-minute-long symphony.  By the time they reach those final few minutes–and there isn’t an instrument that isn’t playing at the end–there are points where you can hear the entire orchestra take an enormous breath, where you can feel that tension of barely, defiantly hanging on. When I heard the work performed last year, there was a point when the augmented brass section all stood up to play the initial theme from the first movement, and I cried.  It’s that kind of music–loud, yes, bombastic, perhaps, but utterly conscious of the sacrifice needed to get there.

Today, a state of emergency was called in Ontario.  Both the province and the Federal government announced aid packages, with more still to come.  Ontario is stepping up testing, adding new hospital beds, doctors, and nurses. I went out a couple hours ago, and while there was no toilet paper, eggs were being stocked on the shelves, and I was able to put together a bag of items requested by a complete stranger in the Caremongering Facebook group–I’ll be headed over to drop it off shortly. On my calls for my work projects, people continue to work diligently despite the challenges, and with few complaints.  For perhaps the first day in the last few, I felt optimism–maybe the same kind that Shostakovich felt in December, 1941.  This is not over by any means, but there is a unity of purpose emerging in Canada that warms my heart, and even in the United States, the President finally seems to understand the severity of the situation.

And I’ve ordered a new viola string.  I emailed the shop where I rented the instrument, and they were able to suggest a good one to purchase and confirmed they were still shipping orders. (Just to be sure, I ordered an inexpensive complete set of strings from Amazon to have on hand).

And, it’s Tuesday.  This evening, I have my customary date with Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, and I expect that will generate a whole new set of feels to talk about tomorrow.