The Power of Music

Leningradby Brian Moynahan

Atlantic Monthly Press. 496p $30

Brian Moynahan, a former foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times (in London) and the author of numerous books, including three on the Soviet Union, has written a fine study of the city of Leningrad’s terrible trials from 1934 to 1942 at the hands of two tyrants, Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin.

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As the subtitle suggests, the bulk of the text is focused on the period between the German siege of the city, which began on Sept., 8, 1941, and the defiant performance of native son Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, know as the Leningrad Symphony, 11 months later. Leningraders, Soviets and their allies perceived that event to be an enormous victory at a time when there were few to celebrate, and by the beginning of 1943 the Red Army broke the German stranglehold. It ultimately liberated the city a year later.

For Shostakovich, Hitler was not the only source of Leningrad’s suffering. In fact, this book tells the tale of the Terror as Leningrad experienced it, with its enormous toll on the city’s arts community, intellectuals, military officials and ordinary people. For the author and the composer, the symphony reflects the triumph of the human spirit over 20th-century European totalitarianism.

The book begins and ends with the triumphant story of the playing of the symphony in August 1942, when the population of Leningrad was about a third of its prewar size of 2.4 million. While about 100,000 people went to serve in the military and another almost 800,000 (like Shostakovich himself) were evacuated, the rest died from the effects of the siege or from the regime’s continuing efforts to root out “enemies.”

Because this book is as much about Stalin’s violence against Leningrad as Hitler’s, the tale begins in late 1934 with the death of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, the city’s Communist Party leader. While Moynahan suggests (and many historians agree) that his death was at the Great Leader’s behest, Kirov’s murder allowed Stalin to unleash terrible violence against the Party and military elite. The carnage against lower-level officials was equally horrific, encouraging Hitler’s decision to invade and leaving the military unready to face the Nazi challenge.

Moynahan makes much of the toll on ordinary people, particularly musicians and dancers. The author’s focus on Shostakovich and his associates helps him make the case that the Leningrad Symphony was as much the composer’s statement about the horrors of Hitler’s blockade as about Stalin’s inhuman hunting of the people of the composer’s beloved city. Many of Shostakovich’s friends were executed, and Stalin so disliked his opera “Lady Macbeth” that Pravda’s review “ended,” according to Moynahan, “in cold and clear menace. The composer was ‘playing a game’ that ‘may end very badly,’” the publication warned. Shostakovich might have been evacuated from Leningrad in October 1941, but he knew he wasn’t safe.

At the beginning of the siege, Moynahan starts writing a kind of diary of the suffering and of the symphony, with each chapter’s name corresponding to the month he covers, except for the penultimate chapter, which is named “Sinfonia No. 7” to indicate that the playing of the Leningrad in the city of the same name in August 1942 was all-important.

By the time readers reach that chapter, they know well the city’s story of mass starvation, deadly cold, aerial attacks, continued repression, inept political and military leadership, murder and cannibalism. At times, Moynahan’s attention to the minutiae can be frustrating. Must we read about another ordinary individual and her terrible end? But by individualizing the stories, the horror becomes clearer. The slow emaciation of people in frigid weather and the tallies of death and destruction take on more meaning because we hear so many different specifics.

Reading this book in the United States in late 2014 provided a poignant counterpoint to Leningrad’s story. Moynahan’s details of pitiful food rations contrasted with visions of laden American holiday tables and the recognition that food insecurity here frequently presents itself as obesity. Moreover, the horrors of recent U.S. wars have been borne by a very small percentage of us. While Party bigwigs in Leningrad were far better fed, they were also more likely to be targeted for repression, and citizens endured the siege and terror together at truly staggering costs. Discussing N.K.V.D. “interviews” and their ability to obtain “useful” information and confessions, Moynahan writes as if no one could believe that prisoners’ testimonies were anything more than attempts to stop the torture, while in the contemporary United States a significant proportion of the elite defend the utility of “enhanced interrogation.” Finally, that a musical performance could have a galvanizing effect worldwide and turn the tide in a war is important to consider in an era when arts education is a low priority, particularly in underfunded urban districts.

If the strength of this book is in its details, the author would have been well served to streamline the information, as there is unnecessary repetition in places. A clearer narrative arc and more discussion of Shostakovich’s creative process would also have been welcomed. Because Shostakovich was outside of the city, Moynahan shifted his focus away from the composer, but if the siege and the symphony are equally important (as the subtitle suggests), the music deserves more emphasis. Yes, the first and penultimate chapters are stirring, especially with their discussions of just how infirm these hero musicians were, but they would have been even more effective with a clearer presentation of the composer’s musical intentions and the analysis of experts.

Moynahan provides reports from contemporaneous American and British critics who were less than impressed with the symphony, but do these judgments hold today? Is the symphony both a musical triumph and a victory of the human spirit because of the amazing efforts of the composer who felt his life was threatened and the many ordinary musicians (and some professionals) who were all so compromised by months of starvation?

Perhaps Moynahan believed that the music’s quality was irrelevant given the monumental accomplishment of playing it during the siege. Moreover, Shostakovich outlived Stalin and is today recognized as a premier Soviet composer, while native sons of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), President Putin’s city, dominate contemporary Russia. Thus symphony, composer and city have prevailed, although this new elite has brought new troubles upon the city’s citizens. Still, Moynahan’s story is one to remember for its emphasis on the willingness of people to sacrifice for each other and for the ways in which art inspires and helps humans overcome the worst brutalities. It gives hope, even today.

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