What would you do if your city was under siege and people were weak, starving, and had zero morale to fight? Probably plot an escape? Try and see if you could ask for an outside rescue? How about bombarding the enemies and using whatever fighting spirit the people had in them to perform and blast an orchestra? To the Soviets during the siege of Leningrad, the latter sounded like an attractive idea, so that’s exactly what they did.
Siege of Leningrad
Leningrad, also known as St. Petersburg, was Russian Empire’s capital and a major industrial center as it was the second-largest city in the USSR. It was no surprise that it became one of the initial targets of the German invasion of June 1941. Later on, the Finnish forces joined the Germans, who marched against Leningrad down the Karelian Isthmus. The siege of Leningrad would last for 872 hellish days, resulting in the deaths of around one million civilians and Red Army troops.
As the Germans marched across the Western Soviet Union, more than two million residents of the capital were evacuated to the east, while more than two million remained. Those who were able-bodied that remained— be it men, women, and children, were enlisted to build antitank fortifications on the edge of Leningrad. By the end of July, however, the German forces continued to advance and had cut the Moscow-Leningrad railway and had the outer belt of the fortifications around the city penetrated. By September 8, the German troops had besieged Leningrad, encircling 200,000 Russian defenders trying to hold them at bay.
In 1942, 600,000 had already died from the siege, and people had a very low rate of survival. The citizens of the once-bustling city had no choice but to resort to burning books and furniture to stay warm during winter. The animals in the city zoo were consumed, and then the household pets. Leather was boiled to produce edible jelly, wallpaper paste from potatoes was scraped off the wall to be eaten, and even grass and weeds were cooked. There were also some who started cannibalizing the dead and, in a few cases, murdering people for their flesh. The people were in a very desperate situation.
Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony
Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s original plan when he finished the Seventh Symphony in December 1941 was to perform the piece in Leningrad. However, he and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra had to evacuate the city after the siege. Instead, it premiered in Kuybyshev in March 1942, dedicating the symphony to the citizens of Leningrad. It was later on decided to perform the piece in the besieged city too, and it was Karl Eliasberg who was chosen to conduct the symphony.
Unsurprisingly, no one in the Leningrad was in any state to perform. They were starving and didn’t want to use whatever remained of their energy to perform music, but Eliasberg gave his orders. He was a member of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, and when he called his musicians for a rehearsal, only 15 showed up. Many of the members already died and those who showed up barely had the energy to move, let alone play musical instruments.
The Soviet authorities had to send a message out to request any musicians to attend the rehearsals because they needed 100 players for the orchestra. Soon, citizens and soldiers started attending whenever they could. During the practices, musicians would commonly collapse or even die, while some would have to leave to attend to their anti-aircraft duties. Eliasberg began to implement a strict system by reducing the rations of the members who would arrive late. Soon, they were able to make a progress and completed a single full play-through of the symphony just three days before the target performance date.
Making Sure Everything Was In Order
Eliasberg dated the performance on the day that Hitler planned to celebrate what they were expecting, the fall of the Leningrad. Before their orchestra, the Soviets wanted to make sure first that it would go uninterrupted so they bombarded the German positions first. They placed loudspeakers around the city, all while making sure that the Germans would hear their music.
Amidst the ruins of the city, the dead bodies, and the remaining starving Soviets, the beautiful harmony of the music began. One of those who witnessed the performance, 18-year-old Olga Kvade, recalled being afraid that the Germans would suddenly bomb them.
On the one hand, I wanted to cry but at the same time, there was a sense of pride. ‘Damn you, we have an orchestra! We’re at the Philharmonic Hall so you Germans stay where you are!’ We were surrounded by Germans. They were shelling us, but there was this feeling of superiority.
When the Seventh Symphony finished, an hour-long ovation followed. Outside the city, the Germans who were hungry and scared listened, too.
The 872-day siege ended on January 27, 1944, after the Soviet troops managed to approach Leningrad and sweep the USSR clean of its besiegers. Surely, the orchestra boosted the morale of the people, and it stands as one of the most unique symphonic performances in music history.