A Symphony of Freedom

By Robin Jacobson. 

One of humanity’s ancient songs of freedom rings out each year on Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of Song), this year on January 23. At Beth El, and around the world, the Torah reader will chant Shirat HaYam (Song of the Sea) – the exultant song of praise the Israelites offered to God after their miraculous escape from Pharaoh’s army.

Down the march of time, other “freedom songs” have made their mark (e.g., La Marseillaise, We Shall Overcome). Yet, for a dramatic back-story, few musical tributes to freedom can compare to the Leningrad Symphony, composed during a horrific World War II siege. Read about it in Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan (2013) and Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson (for young adults, 2015). Here are some highlights.

Siege of Leningrad

For nearly 900 days – from September 1941 through January 1944 – the Nazis blockaded and bombarded Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Hitler’s brutal aim was to starve the entire population to death. The German army destroyed Leningrad’s food warehouses and then positioned land mines and artillery units around the city’s perimeters to kill any escapees.

During long harsh winters, electric power failed, water pipes froze, and food stocks dwindled. Desperate Leningrad residents roasted cats, dogs, and rats. They stripped wallpaper to eat the dried paste. In the streets lay dismembered corpses, missing body parts that had been hacked off for food. Some even resorted to murder to procure fresh human meat.

A Shostakovich Symphony

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), a native of Leningrad, was one of the Soviet Union’s foremost composers. Nonetheless, Shostakovich often lived in dread of arrest. After Stalin walked out of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth opera in 1936, Soviet newspapers denounced Shostakovich for betraying the artistic conventions of Socialist realism. The Soviet state executed many Soviet artists and intellectuals, and Shostakovich feared he would meet the same fate.

As the siege began, Shostakovich began feverishly composing his Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad), which musically depicted the German invasion and Leningrad’s defiance. Despite interruptions from air-raid alarms, Shostakovich rapidly completed the first two movements. Soviet authorities, realizing the symphony’s value for propaganda and morale boosting, evacuated him to Kuibyshev (now Samara), a safer location. There, Shostakovich finished his monumental work.

The symphony was a sensation when it premiered in Kuibyshev and then in Moscow in March 1942. Western allies clamored to perform the symphony too, so microfilmed copies of the score were perilously transported across war-torn nations for triumphant concerts in London and across the United States.

Performance in Leningrad

Of all the symphony’s performances, the most extraordinary was in Leningrad on August 9, 1942 – the very date that the Nazis had boasted they would celebrate the city’s defeat.

Initially, it seemed impossible that the weak and hungry orchestra members remaining in Leningrad would have the strength or breath needed to play an entire symphony. Yet Karl Eliasberg, their determined conductor, mustered extra rations and recruited additional musicians from the army’s regimental bands. With a mixture of bullying and patriotic pep talks, he led his exhausted troupe through rehearsals.

On the evening of the concert, the Red Army protected concertgoers from German shells by firing continuously at German gun positions. The city center remained safe, and the emaciated audience gave the symphony a rapturous reception. Loudspeakers broadcast the concert throughout the city and across no-man’s-land at enemy lines. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg that when he heard that defiant broadcast he realized that the Germans “would never take Leningrad.”