“It was determined that there had to be a performance in the city during the siege”
Last week, I began an examination of synchronicity, the phenomenon in musical performance whereby a coincidence of time, place and event can lead to an impact and effect on listeners that far exceeds in power and profundity the sum of its parts.
The instances of synchronicity I cited were cases where I was actually present at the performance which triggered the effect. But you don’t need to have been there to appreciate it. There are historical examples where the coincidence of factors that gave a performance its peculiar intensity and potency somehow transmits across an age and can still impact on a music lover today.
The most famous case in the history of music occurred in Leningrad on August 9, 1942. The Nazis were settled into their 17-month siege of the city, attempting to pound it into submission. All the significant Soviet artistic bodies and the country’s leading figures had been evacuated, including the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the city’s great talismanic orchestra, the Leningrad blockaded city by night. A team of copyists was instructed to work round the clock, preparing all the parts for the huge orchestra required to play the symphony.
Only 14 musicians from the radio orchestra remained in Leningrad. A colossal orchestra of about 100 would be required. Musicians were taken off siege duty. Brass players were dragged back from the front line. Retired musicians were hauled back into active musical service.
The conductor, suffering from starvation, had already collapsed during the long walk home in the same freezing conditions that afflicted the rest of the population. He was transferred to quarters near the concert hall, given food, a telephone, and a bike to get him to rehearsals. The party issued an edict granting special rations to all the musicians for the duration of rehearsals and the performance period.
It is unlikely that the run-up to any performance in the history of music has received such intense political and social focus, to say nothing of the conditions under which the performance was assembled.
It didn’t stop there. The Soviets instructed that, immediately before the performance, the Germans should be subjected to an intensive, sustained artillery bombardment in order to secure their silence during the performance. Further, the party instructed that the performance of the symphony, which in parts is deafening, should be broadcast directly at the front-line German troops through loudspeakers.
That performance of the Leningrad Symphony was an elemental event as music, politics, warfare, barbarity and humanity all collided in a single experience that left an indelible footprint in the annals of music and its awesome power to affect.
There was individual catharsis, of course. One listener present noted: “People who no longer knew how to shed tears of sorrow and misery now cried from sheer joy.”
But it was bigger than individual reactions. That moment of synchronicity became a universal symbol. Elizabeth Wilson, the acclaimed scholar and one of the great writers on Soviet musical affairs, wrote: “Never before had music acquired such heroic force or become an effective symbol of patriotism.” Philharmonic.
By the time he left the beleaguered city, Shostakovich had written a substantial amount of his seventh symphony, known to this day as the Leningrad Symphony. The first performance was given in Kuibyshev in 1942.
Overnight it became a symbol of defiance, resistance, resilience. The secretive transmission of the score to the West is an incredible story. But where the real synchronicity occurred was in Leningrad itself. The Communist Party determined that there had to be a performance of the symphony in the city during the siege.
It was unthinkable. Conditions were horrendous. The city was being reduced to rubble by the Nazi bombardment. There was no heating, no water, no public transport, and almost no food. The dog and cat population was being eaten. And there were almost no musicians left.
Political imperative and national pride prevailed. The Soviet authorities pulled out the stops. The score of the symphony was flown into the