1941: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 (LENIGRAD) in C major

SATURDAY, October 17, 2020 – 8:33 AM

Shostakovitch Symphony No. 7 (LENIGRAD) in C major, age 35

(Start with the first movement, then understand it is about war. It’s about what happened to Russia, and Shostakovitch, who not only experienced the horror of the German invasion of his country during WWII but who was also hounded by Stalin and his political oppression. It starts out almost peacefully, then a simple tune starts an avalanche of events.

At first there is just simple mindless obedience, but that inexorably leads to war and unspeakable tragedy. At the end of this one movement you perhaps hope that sanity will return, but you just don’t trust it. Note that same stupid tune comes back at the end, with the quiet drum roll. The next outbreak of mindless stupidity leading to another war is right around the corner. I would be $100 on the spot that this is EXACTLY what Shostakovitch meant.)

When it was composed…

It was completed in Samara in December 1941 and premiered in that city on March 5, 1942. It was written officially in honor of the besieged city of Leningrad, where it was first played under dire circumstances on August 9, 1942, with the siege by Axis and Finnish forces ongoing.

The movements…

Shostakovitch later removed the labels to the movements, but I think it is historically important to include them. I have also broken down the movements into smaller sections.

The first movement: “War”

  • 0:26 I. Allegretto: There is a long introduction, and it lays out a very quiet, peaceful atmosphere. The beginning is big, grand, and there is really not much of anything threatening or scary. There are some dissonances, but that is Shostakovich’s musical language. It almost sounds modern to me, strangely, like everyday life with all it’s hustle and bustle, then it settles down to something that might be almost pastoral.
  • 7:07 A strange little tune : It all starts off with a very trite little melody over a snare drum roll. This tune is called “the invasion theme”, and the idea is that wars start off with almost innocent stupidity before it gets out of control and threatens to take over the whole symphony, the way ignorance and complacency often threatens to ruin our lives through war and oppression. This is a lot like Bolero, the same tune over and over again getting more and more powerful, but this is terrifying, dangerous, mindless and increasingly stupid. The simple little tune takes on a horrific aspect that is brutal and frankly frightening. Other composers have made reference to this tune, which was not written by Shostakovitch. Bartok used it in his Concerto for Orchestra.
  • 16:25 Now something new happens: There is a sudden modulation, and this is when the world finally figures out what happened as total madness rules. What was trite and mindless is now utterly terrifying, and Shostakovitch was clearly writing about both Stalin and Hitler
  • 20:52 Finally it starts to wind down: The musical war is over, or at least the violence seems to decrease. Perhaps their is hope again, in what is left of the world after all the violence and repression, but in the key of bleak F# minor things seem pretty bleak. There is still about eight minute of music left, so this first movement is a whole symphony all by itself – about war.

Second movement: “Reminiscence”

  • 29:16 II. Moderato (poco allegretto): Compared to the almost 30 minutes of music in the 1st movement, this one is downright short, but it’s still longer than some of Mozart’s symphonies. This would be what would normally be a scherzo movement. I don’t have any kind of feel about what this is about, though I assume it has something to do with more pleasant times. However, it seems very dark for good memories.

Third movement: “Home Expanses”

Fourth movement: “Victory”

  • 1:01:10 :56 IV. Allegro non troppo – Moderato: In fact, I had no idea where this movement started. I had to look at a score. There is no stop, just a written indication that one part ends and the next begins, but that does not mean the music stops, because it doesn’t. Obviously this is supposed to describe some kind of good ending, or better ending, so I would just assume that as the music becomes increasingly powerful it all means something good.


  • 3 Flutes (2nd doubling alto flute; 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 Oboes, Cor anglais,
    3 clarinets in B♭ and A (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet), Bass clarinet,2 Bassoons, Contrabassoon
  • 8 Horns, 6 Trumpets, 6 Trombones, Tuba
  • 5 Timpani, Bass Drum, Snare Drum (at least one; two to three recommended), Cymbals, Tam-Tam, Triangle, Tambourine, Xylophone, 2 Harps
  • Piano
  • Strings

Now, the full story HERE

I swear this was half a book. Wiki articles can be so anal and so full of trivia that even skimming them sometimes makes me feel I’ve just lost part of my life. But this one time it was worth the read. The story is too immense and to unbelievable to ignore. It took me about half the symphony to get through it and think about what the most important parts are. Here are my impressions.

The performance…

What makes this performance a fascinating is a combination of stunning playing, wonderful camera work, the young conductor and the history. If you read about what the German army did to Russia under Hitler, the fact that you are listening to a German orchestra, conducted by a young Finn and shared with the whole world is just mind-blowing in all ways. For the record, this symphony has always been too long for me, too wandering, and I never really made it through the whole thing. Today I did, and with total fascination. Why? I don’t know. I think it’s the performance. It’s just stunning.

Hitler and Stalin…

You can just about flip a coin as to which of these monsters was more feared and more hated. You will read that this symphony is about Hitler, and the war, but the real story seems to be that Shostakovitch was describing the immense battle against every form of totalitarianism. So if you can, keep that in mind while listening.

It’s terribly long…

It really seems out of touch with our 2020 reality where everything is instant, and where we have problems stopping what we are doing long enough to breathe. My guess that this is just too long, that no one will take the time to listen. That’s why when I see almost 750,000 views of this recording I am both very surprised and very encouraged. There is still a place for great things in this world, even when it seems that fate is stacked against it.

Covid 19 and this symphony…

This was recorded about the time the virus hit China, although we did not know it was about to change all of our lives. I find that ironic, because here we have this very young conductor, who would not turn 24 until about two months later, championing a very difficult work that I would think only someone many decades older could pull off. Not only did he succeed, he succeeded with a video, recording and interpretation that has knocked the socks off of us, those of us who have spent a lifetime listening to music.

Almost anything can ruin this…

You have to listen when you are open. If you are tired, or negative, you won’t make it 10 minutes into this.

You will be reminded of other composers…

Some of the musical references are quotes, meaning that at various times he channeled the music of other famous composers. At other times something he did was stylistically similar. There is one section that reminded me of Bolero, because of the way it repeated a simple idea over and over again. Other times there was almost the feeling of Bruckner and Mahler – his ideas were so sprawling and the absolute opposite of concise and compact.

The orchestra is huge…

There are 21 brass players alone, and the number of percussion instruments is off the chart. Then there are all the woodwind players. So much can go wrong with such a large group if everything is not perfectly balanced and prepared.

It was incredibly popular, but often for the wrong reasons…

There was a great deal of Soviet propaganda, and that made it sound as if this was all about WWII and the Nazis. This played right into the world-wide anti-war feelings and the hate of the Nazi regime – totally understandable – but Shostakovitch’s resistance to the Soviets and Stalin in particular was not understood, so as the world healed, many began to look at the music as jingoistic and even trite.

Then the world mostly forget it…

It went from popular on a level we today call “viral” to nearly forgotten – not totally forgotten, but ever less popular, and you might easily have thought that eventually it would be relegated to a very long curiosity.

Obstacles to performance…

Very long symphonies are seldom popular with audiences. There are a few exceptions, but people – perhaps logically – don’t easily accept music that is close to 90 minutes in length. Often they would like the music if they listened to only one movement at time and then gradually accepted the music in parts. In addition, this is difficult to record for obvious reasons. You need a great hall, a super sound engineer, a superb orchestra and a genius conductor to pull it all together. We have all this in this live performance.

From one rock star to another…

Shostakovitch microfilmed the score via Tehran and Cairo to New York, where Arturo Toscanini led a broadcast performance (July 19, 1942) and Time magazine placed Shostakovitch on its cover. Toscanini was at that time 75 years old, but perhaps most people don’t know that he premiered as a conductor at age 19. So it is interesting that this one time young Wunderkind, Toscanini, started a long line of famous performances culminating with the performance here of another Wunderkind, this time a 23 year old Finn.

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