I first heard the seventh symphony by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich on television back in the 1970’s. It must have been a televised Prom Concert, but I cannot really be sure. I had learned to like the earlier fifth symphony, and was particularly intrigued by that work’s political undertones. Shostakovich had previously been denounced by Stalin for writing music that was vulgar and incompatible with the artistic principles of the revolution (whatever those might have been). This was a serious concern for him, because many of his friends and colleagues had been arrested and even shot following similar accusations. Despite all this, Dmitri Shostakovich was made of considerably sterner (and smarter) stuff. He published his fifth symphony with the sobriquet “A Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism”, and the attendant work did indeed appear to address the criticisms previous applied by the state.
However, even to an unsophisticated teenager’s ear, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony is a piece of unrelentingly biting satire, fairly bubbling with barely-suppressed sarcasm and cynicism. Nourished as I was by the likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it was wonderful to imagine the pompous ranks of the Soviet establishment at once gushing over the magnificent rehabilitation of a true soviet artist, at the same time as the piece they were praising so fulsomely was savagely mocking them and everything they stood for.
After the fifth symphony, the seventh symphony is probably the composer’s best known work. Here the narrative was that it was written to commemorate the failed German siege of Leningrad. In the first movement, the symphony depicts the slow and irresistible advance of the German army, followed by its onslaught and extended siege over the city of Leningrad. The siege was truly terrible. The city was cut off for three long and terribly cold winters, and something approaching a million civilian citizens died of cold and starvation. The symphony goes on to reflect the triumph of the Russian people over the repelled and beaten Germans. This also was another wonderfully compelling story, and when I first heard the symphony on the TV (incredibly, I could not locate an LP at a price a penurious student was willing to pay) I was impressed by its depth, breadth, and scope. The opening ‘battle’ movement was riveting, and the closing triumph very satisfying. This was another symphony I was intending to enjoy getting to know.
Except that it didn’t turn out that way. Over the years I bought quite a few recordings, hoping to recapture what I thought I felt watching that original TV broadcast. But it never happened. There were two main problems. First, I came to realize that much of the thematic material was unsatisfying. The main ‘battle theme’, repeated (in a manner that evokes Ravel’s Bolero) over a series of twelve consecutive variations of steadily accumulating intensity, seemed to become ever more trite, naive, or at even schoolboyish, with every repeated listening. There was nothing particularly Germanic about it. It sounded less and less a great work, and more and more an immature work.
The second problem was perhaps a more grave one. Upon closer inspection, the music did not appear to do an effective job of developing the narrative ascribed to it. No matter how many times I listened to the first movement, I could not get it to invoke the savagery of a German panzer onslaught. After all, the Germans did not creep up on you. They fell upon you like a category 6 hurricane. The battle was intense from the opening salvo, and went on at the same level for a long, long time. And rather than gradually building in intensity, the opposite happened. The intensity diminished as mother nature bestowed an equal lack of mercy on both sides. At the end of the symphony, all of a sudden everything erupts in triumph. Where does that come from? And what do we make of the two long, slow, laborious movements that separate the battle from the triumph? The symphony and its narrative did not stack up, and with that huge disconnect it was difficult to come to terms with its apparent musical deficiencies.
I am not a musicologist, and thus it was only recently, with a big assist from The Internet, that I was able to finally come up with the resolution to these problematic issues and turn the symphony into a major work that I could fully come to terms with. The symphony was written over a very short period of time in late 1940 and early 1941, during the early months of the siege and a long time before its full reality was to emerge. And even so, it was the composer’s habit to allow his musical ideas to percolate in his imagination for a long time - sometime years - before he allowed himself to commit them to paper. The symphony’s narrative therefore, in all likelihood, formed in his head long before Hitler’s armies even left Berlin.
So what was the real narrative then? For the answer, it seems we have to go back to the fifth symphony, and the ease with which Shostakovich was able to skewer the pomposity and hubris of the communist establishment. This symphony, then, is Shostakovich’s commentary on the great communist experiment itself. The ‘battle’ movement is not at all about the German army approaching Leningrad. It is about the insidious manner in which the communist movement took over Russian society, inserting itself into the fabric of the nation bit by bit, until it was too late to be able to resist. The triumph it leads to is ugly and quite unmistakable. We now see clearly that the trite, naive, and schoolboyish nature of the themes do not reflect an inept compositional talent, but rather a masterful composer with a sure grasp of parody, sarcasm, and skewering wit. There is a lot hidden behind these apparently unsubtle themes. They can be traced to folk songs and melodies, and even popular tunes of the period, which Shostakovich has twisted and adapted to signify the Communist Party’s positioning of the revolution as a popular (literally, ‘of the people’) movement.
The symphony opens with a majestic theme, presented in a manner to suggest the grandiosity and formality of Imperialist Russian society, and leads into a pastoral interlude before the gentle but insistent pianissimo tapping of a snare drum unsuspectingly ushers in the communists. From these apparently harmless beginnings, the communist takeover proceeds insidiously, yet relentlessly. Four long movements later the symphony closes with the return of the majestic theme from the opening, this time sounding more like a movie soundtrack with the hero riding off into the sunset with his gal at his side. The intervening period, following the ‘triumph’ of the communist takeover (more exultant than triumphant), is a lengthy period of bleak music. It tries from time to time to rouse itself, but never seems to offer anything of ambition before descending back into the routine. It seems to reflect the unrelieved hopelessness of communist Russian society. Seen in this light, the concluding triumph does not appear to represent the triumph of communism itself. Rather it appears to be a hopeful imagination of a rosy future, one much like its Imperial past, but with a smiley face. And nothing in the long lead-up seems to suggest that this will be the natural outcome of the great communist experiment. In fact, the final climax itself is in many ways a parody of a rosy future. Clearly this is not the communist party’s grand deception at play - we’ve already heard what that sounds like in the fifth symphony - no, in my view this is Shostakovich’s gentle parody on the great hopes of the ordinary Russian people. Hopes for a wonderful, happy future, a rose-tinted version of the best parts of their Imperial past. But it’s not real. They can’t have the real thing - only the movie version.
I haven’t until now found a recording that conveys this new view of the great seventh symphony. Interestingly, I just last week received my Society of Sound free download, which was Gergiev’s recent recording of the 7th with the Mariinsky Orchestra (his second with this orchestra in little over a decade). Gergiev has never convinced me as a conductor, although his reputation is absolutely stellar, and his latest seventh seems to be another one cut from the traditional “German Siege” template. Ho-hum, I thought.
But then along comes Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, playing live on SACD. Jansons in my view is every bit the conductor that Gergiev’s reputation describes. He could go down in history as one of the all-time greats. And this recording of the ‘Leningrad’ is by quite some margin the best I have ever heard. Finally, we have a deeply convincing portrayal of the modern interpretation. Of course, if you prefer the traditional interpretation, then maybe this one isn’t going to cut it for you - but seriously, does anyone really buy that any more? Apart from maybe Gergiev. And, for an added bonus, the recording itself here is an absolute stunner. Sure, the Concertgebouw hall’s ponderous bass does come across a little, but even so it is very well tamed and doesn’t detract in the slightest. Whoever recorded this should have won a Grammy (and maybe he did - I actually wouldn’t know).