“It was de­ter­mined that there had to be a per­for­mance in the city dur­ing the siege”

The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Michael Tumelty

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

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