A very tiny part of me wishes I had been there but the cowardly majority of me thanks the gods that I was not! It was a moment when extreme art met, well, extreme conditions hardly describes it! I refer to the first Leningrad performance of the 7th Symphony by Shostakovich in August 1942.
The Spectator has reviewed a new book, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan and it sounds like a harrowing read. Shostakovich was present during the early part of the seige but he and his family were evacuated later on. He had already composed the outlines of the first three movements and during 1942 he finished the whole work which was premiered elsewhere but in August 1942, against unbelievable odds, it was performed in Leningrad itself.
How else to explain the successful performance of the Seventh Symphony that following August? It was a full-blooded 70-minute work for an orchestra of more than 100, performed by a radio band reduced by death and infirmity to a mere handful of sickly regulars, augmented by military-band players from the battlefront and by whatever extra wind and string players could be drafted in from the city’s dilapidated musical substrata, and directed by a conductor — Karl Eliasberg — who could himself barely hold a baton or stand upright.
For musicians, similarly, Moynahan’s account of the preparations for the
symphony performance will ring bells that soon crack. At first the players are
barely able to hold their instruments, the wind-players incapable of blowing or
even forming their mouths into an embouchure.
Gradually, under Eliasberg’s unwavering moral pressure, they manage to rehearse for short stretches. Now and then a player will simply fall over; or someone will fail to turn up to rehearsal, for the one simple, irreversible reason. The musicians begin to resent the whole process. When one player is late because, he says, he has been burying his wife, Eliasberg snaps: ‘Make sure it’s the last time!’ Yet eventually, at the final rehearsal, it all suddenly comes together, and the performance is an incredible triumph, greeted by a packed Philharmonie with a standing ovation that begins even before the end of the work, as the players falter and the audience urges them on.
Sublimity amongst the starvation and death, the blood and the body-parts! I didn't know but apparently each August the symphony is played in the main concert hall as a means of commemoration. Russia is amongst the last places in the world I would wish to visit but that might - just - tempt me.