Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony was first played in the city of its birth on 9 August, 1942. There has never been a first performance to match it. Pray God, there never will be again. Almost a year earlier, the Germans had begun their blockade of the city. Already many thousands had died of their wounds, the cold, and most of all, starvation. The assembled musicians - scrounged from frontline units and military bands, for only twenty of the orchestra's 100 players had survived - were so hungry, many feared they'd be too weak to play the score right through. In these, the darkest days of the Second World War, the music and the defiance it inspired provided a rare beacon of light for the watching world.
Setting the composition of Shostakovich's most famous work against the tragic canvas of the siege itself and the years of repression and terror that preceded it, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony is a magisterial and moving account of one of the most tragic periods in history.
Veteran international journalist Moynahan (Claws of the Bear) artfully weaves four interrelated stories set in the great Russian metropolis from 1934 to 1942: the start and continuation of Stalin's purges; the siege of the city by German forces during WWII; the dire huger and cold within the city; and the near-miraculous and triumphant Russian premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony ("the Leningrad") in August 1942, with German guns only seven miles away. Moynahan reveals the extent to which Stalin decimated his army's leadership up to and after the June 1941 German invasion and how the purges encompassed a growing number of civilians accused of defeatism. Meanwhile, during the terrible winter of 1942, desperate citizens resorted to cannibalism. Discussing the symphony's performance, Moynahan notes that most of the musicians "were substitutions due to illness and death," and yet, he notes, if the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich's masterwork was "perhaps the most magnificent... moment ever to be found in music," the music "hid the camps and interrogation chambers." Moynahan occasionally loses steam, but his vivid political, military, and artistic vignettes and the deft way he links them make this an exceptional, memorable work. Maps.