M.T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Seige of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015)
Using the life and work of the composer Dimitri Shostakovich as a “hook,” and specifically his masterful Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”), Symphony for the City of the Dead explores one of the most horrific places and times to live in human history: Russia from the 1917 Revolution through the rise of Stalin and the Second World War.
Leningrad (formerly and now again St. Petersburg) has a long and proud cultural history, which a native musical prodigy such as Shostakovich should have been free to inherit and build on. Instead, he found himself hemmed in by demands that his music fit Stalinist ideas of what music should be and do for “the people,” and by murderous forces from both inside and outside his country. At one time he slept outside his apartment door so that his wife and child would not be awakened when he was taken away by the secret police; surviving that peril at the cost of the suppression of his “formalist” Fourth Symphony, he found himself caught in the Nazi trap that became the seige of Leningrad, a three-year ordeal that Hitler devised in order to bring the Slavs to their knees. Yet within this deathly environment he began composing a symphony that would capture the imaginations of the nation and of the world.
It’s a fascinating topic, and I found that Anderson marshaled his information well, keeping his narrative moving along while incorporating an impressive number of facts and eyewitness reports. In this real-life horror story, there is no happy ending and no way to escape the incredible brutality of human beings, making us question what lurks behind the thin veneer of civilization. Yet there are also glimpses of bravery, endurance, and the power of art to both articulate and transcend our sufferings. The description of the first performance of the symphony within beseiged Leningrad is incredibly moving, as emaciated, tottering musicians push themselves to the limit in order to play for their city.
Finding the truth about the Soviet era is not easy, and Shostakovich’s true thoughts and feelings are basically impossible to uncover, given his need to mask and conceal himself in order to survive. But Anderson brought clarity into a murky time while still allowing us to feel its painful ambiguity. I was not so enamored of the author’s writing style, with its short, choppy sentences enlivened by the occasional hyperbolic statement or pop-culture reference. I’m not sure if this was meant as a gesture toward the book’s intended audience, older teens and young adults, but I found it unfortunate and clumsy.
Still, I learned a tremendous amount about events of which I knew little and am even more impressed than ever by Shostakovich’s ability to create under such circumstances. I appreciated how Anderson made it vividly clear throughout his text that art — the making and experiencing of art — is a vital part of our nature as human beings, never more so than when our humanity is threatened by the brutal impact of war. For readers of any age, this is an important, profound message for our times.
I also have to mention the stunning cover and excellent design overall. As with another new release from Candlewick that I enjoyed recently, The Hired Girl, the design is perfectly in tune with the contents, and I also appreciate that attention to detail.