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In spite of the title, the subject of this copiously illustrated book is far more than merely the Leningrad symphony, its composition and performance history, etc. After the prologue, describing the journey of the microfilm of the symphony from Russia to America, we return to Shostakovich’s birth in 1906, pre-revolution. In the last 20 pages we read of the tenth symphony, the Khrushchev era and Shostakovich’s death in 1975. His final work, the viola sonata, is mentioned in passing but there is nothing on the other late symphonies and there is no critical assessment of the seventh symphony. Nevertheless, the book is absolutely essential reading, telling the gripping story of operation Barbarossa and the siege of Leningrad. The pages concerning the Germans’ assault on the city include sickening detail of the unbelievable horrors suffered by the heroic Russians.

This is much more of a history book than a music book, but it does emphasise the power of music during wartime, as literally starving people (daily ration 125 grams of ‘bread’ including sawdust – about a quarter of the minimum needed for human survival) could be spiritually lifted by a symphony composed for their city. Experts are still trying to explain how morale – in this case immeasurably raised by access to culture – can be as important as food. This should be remembered if we are tempted, as I was, to diminish the value of a symphony in the context of an appalling 872-day siege. It is difficult to imagine the full effect of the Leningrad symphony (which sadly is no ‘true masterpiece’, in spite of the author’s claim) upon the citizens but, as one trombonist recalled, ‘some would exchange their daily meal for a ticket to a classical concert’. The Americans, having committed to a massive aid programme, were desperate to hear Shostakovich’s new symphony. After Toscanini had conducted the US premiere, it was played in 62 different cities in less than six months, broadcast in nearly 2,000 radio stations across the country.

I strongly recommend this book, which will be one of my top choices of 2016.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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