Monday, February 12, 2018

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
by M.T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is a magnificent book, full stop. I say this as a fan of the music of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Seventh Symphony helped raise the morale of Soviet citizens, and funds from the USSR's western allies, during Nazi Germany's record-long siege of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). It's a story about music, and other forms of cultural activity, giving people hope while a combination of starvation, aerial bombing, artillery bombardment, daring escapes, social collapse, human frailty, despair, and other perils of being caught between two of the most brutal dictators in human history reduced a population of 2.5 million to somewhere in the 500,000 range in a little less than 900 days. It's about survival under a regime that slaughtered millions of its own citizens, during a war against an enemy whose stated goal was the annihilation of their entire race. And it's a story about one man - a coward when it concerned himself personally, a hero when it concerned other people's interests, a mild-mannered intellectual, an obsessive soccer fan, a husband, a father, and a devoted son to his widowed mother - writing music that, at a few crucial points in his life and times, convinced millions of people he was telling the story of their hearts.

I'm a softie, as you know if you've spent much time perusing my book reviews. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to say, with all sincerity, that the ability to make me cry is a useful index for judging the emotional power of a book. Not only did I weep more than once while reading this book, but I got choked up multiple times while describing parts of it during an oral review. I don't dare try to tell you how much Shostakovich's music means to me, though as a weak hint, I might mention that his book of preludes and fugues for piano (in all 24 major and minor keys) is one of my go-to books for daily recreational piano playing. I've listened to every one of his 15 symphonies (not to mention concertos, operas, and other works), and several of them are very dear to me. In this book, though I believe he is a musical layman, M.T. Anderson - National Book Award-winning author of The Pox Party and the highly underrated Norumbegan Quartet - does full justice to Shostakovich's unique genius for distilling personal, and in some cases national, feelings into music in such a way that masses of people immediately understand and feel along with him. Next to that in awesomeness is the amazing story of his survival, in spite of being denounced by his government - twice! - and ostracized; seeing people close to him sent into exile, tortured, and even executed by Stalin's police state; and at times becoming, in spite of himself, a personal threat to a paranoid monster whose word was life or death for tens of millions.

I found this book on the "Young Adult Nonfiction" shelf at the local public library. It may be a challenging read for many young adults, if they are familiar neither with the music of 20th century Russian composers, nor the history of the Soviet Union and World War II. Anderson helpfully explains a lot of concepts and vocabulary; but he also assumes the reader will either know already, or take the initiative to learn, such concepts as "memento mori" (for just one example). His endnotes bear witness to what a tremendous amount of scholarship went into writing this book. He makes responsible use of even some dubious sources, such as the admittedly unreliable reminiscences of Shostakovich's aunt and the supposed memoirs of Shostakovich, Solomon Volkov's Testimony - a book I loved in the 1990s, but about which there has been considerable debate as to whether it is "authentic and true, authentic and untrue, inauthentic and true, or inauthentic and untrue." It must be difficult, wouldn't you think, to write a biography or a history set in a place and time where practically every source is prone to omission, distortion, fabrication, self-justifying or self-aggrandizing deception, etc. And though I would like to have seen a few additional details (like how Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony of 1945, not even mentioned in this book, tweaked the expectation of a grand choral symphony celebrating the Allied victory by, instead, turning out to be a cute little Haydnesque trifle). But I have to admit that Anderson did his job just right, revealing just enough of his scholarship to remain credible while telling a true story that is almost too strange, too heartbreaking, too inspiring to be believed.

No comments: