Last Saturday saw one of music history’s lesser-known anniversaries. On March 29th 1942, at the height of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony got its Moscow premiere. In truth, it’s not one of the composer’s best works (though it’s pretty stirring stuff), but the story of its premiering across the Soviet Union, in the darkest days of the war, is nothing short of astonishing.
The symphony was intended for the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, but they – like the composer himself – had been evacuated from the besieged city. At that time, such was the fear of Hitler’s invading troops, that much of the government itself had fled Moscow to Kuybyshev (present-day Samara), and it was there that the world premiere took place on March 5th.
Next came Moscow on the 29th, but it was what happened next that was truly amazing. First the score was microfilmed and flown out to the West via Tehran. It received its New York premiere in July, but – almost immediately after the Moscow concert – plans were then announced to play the symphony in the one place it was really meant for. Perhaps the most dangerous place on earth in 1942. Leningrad itself.
The 252-page conductor’s score was airlifted from Kuybyshev to the stricken city; according to some sources a team of copyists was employed to transcribe the various orchestral parts. Others say that the musicians did this themselves. The players were recruited from across Leningrad, but such were the horrendous conditions that rehearsals frequently had to be stopped thanks to air raids or simply the malnourished exhaustion of the musicians. Three of the orchestra died.
But the day of the premiere arrived.
Loudspeakers were placed across the city. A special artillery bombardment was ordered to silence the German guns, and Soviet troops were given orders to turn on their radios. ‘Listen, Comrades!’, urged the conductor, in a wireless address.
And they did. As, too, did the invaders. In fact, the conductor Karl Eliasberg claimed later to have been told by a German soldier that when he heard the music he knew Leningrad could never be taken. The people, he thought, were simply too resilient.
In my meaner moments of interviewing university candidates, I sometimes ask them whether historians can use music as a primary source. Can we use music to understand the societies that created it? We’re pretty comfortable with plays, or novels, or songs and poems. We’re good with paintings, and such lost art-forms as masques have been used extensively by students of, say, the culture of the Stuart monarchy.
But music is different. Music is abstract. In its purest forms it is wordless. In fact, some of us – myself included – feel that it is this amazing ability to express images and emotions without using words or pictures that makes music the greatest form of human art.
But it also makes music an astonishingly foggy window onto a past culture. We can sense the emotional clarity of a work, but it’s rarely obvious whether this is a broad reaction to the times, or simply reflects the personal feelings of the composer.
Take the brilliant, dark, tortured late Beethoven string quartets (here’s the beautiful slow movement from the 15th). Are they a reaction to a shattered post-Napoleonic Europe, in which the optimism that once followed Bonaparte was dying in a sea of shattered states and battlefield casualties? Or are they a reflection of the composer’s personal anguish at his own growing infirmity and encroaching deafness?
To what extent does music anyway just follow its own internal logic, regardless of the social change around it? Did punk originate out of 1970s urban decline, or was it simply a musical reaction to the excesses of prog-rock?
But to a point, of course, this is to ask the wrong question. Music clearly both follows and helps to shape cultural trends. And those trends are themselves historical.
In the early nineteenth century, musicians developed an obsession with the night. The most famous example is Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, but there are also well-known ‘Nocturnes’ by composers such as Liszt and Chopin. Perhaps the greatest piece of musical darkness from the age was Schubert’s astonishing, haunting, Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’), which tells the story of an unhappy lover’s decision to leave his home and to tramp the icy and dark wilderness of the cold countryside, longing for death. It’s irrational, it’s pessimistic, and above all it’s dark – in every possible sense.
It is, indeed, hard not to interpret all this as a (post-Napoleonic?) rejection of eighteenth-century rationalism and optimism. The fascination with darkness and the night, and all the strange things that happened there, was meant to stand in stark contrast to the earlier ideals of ‘Enlightenment’.
Nor is this the only example. In a more optimistic age, the music of JS Bach can be interpreted as a quest to understand the musical patterns that underlay God’s design of the universe. Very Newtonian.
And the later Romantics were influenced by underlying patterns, too. This time those that made up the fabric of nations and peoples; the national myths that influenced Wagner, for example; or landscapes, as with Smetana’s famous depiction of the Moldau river in his wonderful Ma Vlast (‘My Country’).
Others collected the folksongs of ordinary people. The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the most egalitarian composers who ever lived, contains snippets from songs he collected on his travels around the countryside, as well as hawkers’ calls he heard on the streets of London. It helps make him the most English of all musicians, but it also reflected a particular form of democratic nationalism.
Which brings me back to Shostakovich. Once you actually sit and listen to it, his music is so quintessentially of a time and a place that it simply cannot be understood without History. And so we can read History in it.
His music, as much as it contains moments of Soviet tubthumping beloved of his paymasters, is laced with fear, paranoia, and sarcasm. In several of his symphonies, most terrifyingly in his difficult but riveting Fourth, there are moments when it feels like the listener is being chased. At other times, such as the slow movement to his famous Fifth Symphony, or the opening part of the First Violin Concerto, he descends into deep introspection, as if he is wishing the world away but simulaneously unable to escape anywhere happier.
Or, perhaps most astonishingly, in his chamber music from the 1940s and ‘50s, there starts to appear a buffoonish character, who intrudes into the music, performing ungraceful peasant-dances, repeatedly hitting the wrong notes. You see this in the Cello Sonata, the Piano Quintet, and the Eighth String Quartet, but I think it’s most obvious in the last movement of the Second Piano Trio, where a Jewish-style pizzicato jig is suddenly interrupted by a thumping and repetitive refrain. When the dance returns it has been mangled and is dominated by a graceless underlying rhythm, as if some uncultured idiot has barged in and forced the music to dance to his own, ugly tune.
The idiot, surely, is Stalin.
Indeed, as much as we like to think our modern musicians are rebellious, the worst most of them have to worry about is irritating David Cameron or swearing on the BBC. Shostakovich took the piss out of Stalin, while also being paid by his government. He is, therefore, the most rock-and-roll person ever.
But it’s the emotions he conveys which are most useful to historians. It is the terrible fear, the introspective despair, and the feelings of intrusion by a thuggish leader which make his music so valuable to us.
Because, as much as Westminster City Council are a pain in the ass, I’ve never actually had to live under a totalitarian government.
So if I want to know what it feels like, I have to look to historical sources, to peoples’ writings, to interviews, to visual images.
But also to music.