Symphony of the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson

Symphony of the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
By M. T. Anderson
A review by Bethany Tillerson

With red blood flooding the streets of Leningrad, Shostakovich’s story begins. Not literally, of course–Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in 1906, while the Russian Revolution led by Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin began in 1917. But the Revolution is, perhaps, when his musical story began its first chapter.

This is the style of historical record you can expect in M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad: poetic, evocative, narrative storytelling. Anderson is a natural storyteller–he paints characters and imagery with the same brush, whether it’s a scene of an emaciated, slowly starving orchestra performing Shostakovich’s Seventh for the first time, or of a father and daughter riding their bikes through a forest in a rare moment of peace. In broad strokes, he follows Shostakovich through the Revolution that toppled the tsar and installed the Communist Bolsheviks, through the Great Purge under Stalin, and through history’s longest recorded siege, Germany’s 872-day-long Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Anderson establishes Shostakovich as a man who just happened to be a composer in mid-twentieth century Russia, and what that meant for him, through fame and famine and peace, though there wasn’t much of the latter. The nature of Soviet Russia means that there isn’t much that can’t be debated regarding Shostakovich–his childhood, his opinions, what he may or may not have said–but Anderson manages to navigate questionable information with transparency. ‘Allegedly’ and ‘supposedly’ are words that come up often, but the reader is still left with what seems to be a well-rounded understanding of who Shostakovich was as a person, who his friends and family were, and the suffering they went through in Stalinist Russia.

The first third of the book is dedicated to art and culture in the early days of the Revolution and Stalin’s regime, which is extremely useful context for understanding Shostakovich’s work. At some points, Shostakovich nearly fades into the background of his own story–perhaps as he would have preferred in his own life–and the narrative branches out to look at Russia as a whole. Stalin and the war are large figures, so much so that occasionally the author seems to be cramming everything that could be remotely interesting into one large book. The Russian war effort, or internal politics among Stalin’s bureaucracy, is interesting information, but only tangentially related to Shostakovich himself.

However, this rarely lasts long enough to become irritating, and Anderson does a good job of following the same people across the years–the reader gets the chance to know not only Shostakovich, but his friends who made their own contributions to art and politics at the time. Diary entries, poems, and song lyrics offer a stark image of a war-torn, fearful country that for decades cannot trust its very leaders. Understanding the culture of Russia is important for understanding Shostakovich in a time when his words couldn’t be trusted and when his actions had multiple motivations.

Details of life at the time are well-researched, peppered in so thoroughly that the city of Leningrad comes to life. Symphony for the City of the Dead is an account of Shostakovich, in all his shy, fame-averse glamor, but it is equally a story of Leningrad, a city that has gone through many names and many leaders and many changes, but persists in its humanity. In the horror and darkness of a siege where over a million people died, music, Shostakovich’s especially, offered solace, glowing through the streets and in the newspaper columns like its own light source and giving a starving city a bit of comfort.

This book is never dry or dull–Anderson is invested in keeping his readers engaged throughout the decades of Shostakovich’s life, through imagery and dialogue–but at times it is a little sparse. Or rather, the details included about Shostakovich are minutiae, things that are appealing in a narrative sense, things that have the symmetry expected from a novel–for example, that he composed a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution” (the revolutionaries) and later played it to commemorate political leaders who were killed by those same revolutionaries; or, that soon after the assassination of Shostakovich’s friend, military officer Tukhachevsky, he was called in for ‘questioning’ by the NKVD, only to come back for a scheduled appointment the next week to learn that his interrogator himself had been ‘purged’ in the last two days and his appointments were cancelled. It’s easy this way to understand Shostakovich as a character, as a possible portrayal of a person, but less so to see him as he really was, or might have been. And perhaps that is the point.

Another example of the seeming sparsity? Once the Leningrad Siege ends, the last 20 pages or so zip through the last few decades of his life, coming across as jarringly unspecific contrasted with the massive amount of information readers receive about his early life.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad is a satisfying tribute to the power of music and art in a time where it was dangerous to be an individual. For those who know little of Shostakovich, this is a very good way of being introduced to him and to his music; readers really do walk away with a better understanding of how his Fifth Symphony and Seventh Symphony were received in the world, and what impact they made, without feeling overwhelmed by a barrage of facts and dates and information. This book is interested in tracing Russia’s evolution across the early 20th century through Shostakovich–appropriate, considering that Shostakovich acts as the composer of Russian history, his music tracking cultural and political changes in his homeland. For those who want more in-depth information on Shostakovich’s personality, actions, and motivations, Anderson’s book is entertaining, but not quite as exhaustive as a biography could be.