Symphony No. 7 in C Major, op. 65

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            Will the real Dmitri Shostakovich please hold up his hand—or at least the composer of Symphony No. 7?   On no other major recent composer has more ink been spilt attempting to understand what thought processes and motivations reveal the true self than that on Shostakovich.  The evidence is fought over, sifted, and re-sifted to build the case that he was a musically-gifted, but incredibly naïve, tool of the worst instincts of Stalinism.  Or, on the other hand, a musically-gifted, but wondrously deceptive, resident critic of the terrors of Soviet Communism.  Even—something of both.  The jury of experts is still out, and will more than likely remain so, for Shostakovich left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.  He was capable of writing the most satirical compositions that scathingly excoriated the excesses and flaws of Western Democracies—it is informing to remember that as a young man he spent much time playing the piano in silent movie houses.  And, of course, he is admired for music of dark and profound passion that laments the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.   It is tempting for those who enjoy easy freedoms of artistic expression to hold others from other times to a high moral standard and to adjure them to not “sell out” their integrity.  But few major composers have endured such political and artistic oppression as that of Shostakovich. 

            He was a student during the early years of the Soviet regime, and like all artists in that country enjoyed the relative indifference towards the arts by early communism.   Stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions lay in the future, and he studied the music of a broad array of traditional and modern composers.  His musical education was broad and firm, and he was free to pursue his artistic interests.  He was generally supportive of the communist regime, and saw no reason to think otherwise.   But, as the world knows, during the late twenties and early thirties, life in the Soviet Union evolved into something much more sinister and challenging.  As Stalin gradually clamped down on every aspect of everyday life, the arts became progressively a tool for social and political indoctrination.   Art was impressed into the service of the state as propaganda, taking in this case the form of what is known as “Socialist Realism.”   Simply put, artists were to glorify the reality of the revolution and its benefit to Soviet citizens.   Cantatas about the arrival of new tractors to the village, or about “Stalin, the great gardener and re-forester,” were to become the norm.  1936 marked a fateful year—the Great Terror began, in which millions were executed, including many of Shostakovich’s friends and benefactors.  It is said with fair accuracy that hardly any family went without tragedy.   It was also the year that Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth, drew official, published opprobrium—most likely stemming directly from Stalin, himself—and the life of Shostakovich and his music both became precarious.   He even contemplated suicide, and camped on the landing outside his apartment to effect his arrest without disturbing his family.  But, his standing soon eased and he resumed a vigorous musical production during the rest of the thirties, many of which compositions could be variously interpreted as obviously condemnatory of the decay and evil of the West, or as heavily-veiled criticism of the vices of his own country.

            Then in June 1941 the Germans invaded Russia, and the siege of Leningrad (formerly and presently, St. Petersburg) became a galvanizing exemplar of the valiant resistance of the noble Russian people.  Shostakovich’s seventh symphony is the symbol of that remarkable siege, and has been since its composition.   The date of the origin of the first movement—originally conceived as a kind of tone poem/requiem, not a symphony—is still controversial, with some evidence that it was completed well before the invasion.  In any case, the remaining movements were completed as the horrific siege unfolded.   The scope of human suffering and loss of life was enormous; all those who visit St. Petersburg today are obliged to stand before endless acres of the mass graves of the citizenry who perished.   Finished in December of 1941, the symphony was given its premiere in March of 1942 safely in the Ural Mountains, some 500 miles away.   Later, in August, a pathetic, rag-tag, starved band of the few musicians left alive in the city gave a performance of the symphony after being given enough food to sustain their energies.   Musical instruments had to be rounded up, and even an artillery barrage on German positions was ordered to silence their guns for the broadcast performance.  That performance established this tragic work as a major piece of war propaganda around the world.  The full score was sneaked out around German lines on microfilm, and leading conductors vied to lead the first performance outside of Russia, including Toscanini and Stokowski.   Shostakovich’s picture even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, wearing the helmet of a Leningrad fire warden.   The composer and his heroic symphony were all the rage in the western democracies, which were practically obsessed with both as symbols of their alliance with all who fought the Nazis—especially our friends the noble communists.   Not all were so enthusiastic.  Major music critics in the US, as well as composers such as Béla Bartók and Rachmaninoff, panned the symphony.  After the war—well, we all remember America’s quick turnabout on all things “Red.”  For years, the work was one of controversy; it was seen in the West as an emotional, over-wrought paean to our cold war enemies, full of antiquated romantic imagery and heavily tinged with socialist realism.   Not modern, not intellectual, and definitely not avant-garde, it was simply an embarrassment.

            Times have changed.  Now, Shostakovich’s seventh symphony is widely held to be one of the best efforts of probably the most popular composer of the middle of the twentieth century.  Cast in the usual four movements, it is quite long, but no more so than the composers that Shostakovich saw as heavily influential upon his own work:  Mahler and Bruckner.   And, like many of those composers’ works it calls for a large orchestra: double size brass sections, alto flute, and even three snare drums if you wish to use them!

            The first movement is perhaps the most notable one, starting with a majestic theme in the strings, followed by a quiet section in the flutes and low strings.   And then comes the gripping “invasion” theme, a simple tune redolent of a melody from Lehar’s Merry Widow combined with a snatch of Deutschland über Alles.  Most listeners don’t catch this, but it doesn’t matter, it is yet another example of the composer’s famous sarcasm.   This is simply a smashing section as the theme softly builds through twelve repetitions, rather like Ravel’s Bolero, until the trumpets noisily intrude.  The original titles for the second and third movements were “Memories” and “Our Country’s Wide Spaces,” respectively.   One may make of them what seems appropriate, but the composer did admit at one time that the latter movement was inspired by the stillness of the Neva River in St. Petersburg at twilight.   The last movement is a sprawling one, with allusions to melodies from the previous movements.   The almost overwhelming ending is yet another example (Beethoven’s fifth symphony and Brahms’ first come to mind) of a triumphal C major ending, although in this case Shostakovich’s dark nature, the awful privations of the war, and the tragic realities of life under Stalin cast a pall over the superficial optimism.  A checkered work this symphony may be, but it is a powerful and evocative document of a pivotal point in the history of the twentieth century by one of its most gifted composers.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan