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Composed: 1941
Length: c. 80 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = alto flute, 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, field drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 13, 1944, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

Dmitri Shostakovich embodied two strikingly different personas. There was the public Shostakovich, the man always navigating the treacherous waters of life under Stalin. And there was the private Shostakovich, a sort of tragic figure, simultaneously cowed and defiant. Few works in Shostakovich’s output demonstrate the composer’s double life better than his “Leningrad” Symphony. It is filled with equivocation, a prime example of Shostakovich walking the fine line between public expectations and his private feelings.

The “Leningrad” is a wartime work. The Germans invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, and, by the end of July, Leningrad, the capital, was completely surrounded. The siege would last nearly 900 days, during which roughly a million of the city’s residents died, much of the city itself was reduced to rubble, and living conditions for those who didn’t die were ghastly.

Shostakovich composed the first three movements during the summer of 1941 in the midst of the besieged city. He and his family were evacuated that fall, and he completed the Symphony in Kuibyshev, the provisional Russian capital, on December 27 of that year; it premiered there on March 5, 1942.

Shostakovich’s “official” comments about the Symphony, made during the broadcast of the first performance, circulated with the music. The composer describes the Seventh Symphony as “an optimistic conception. As a composition, it is closer to my Fifth Symphony than to my Sixth; it is a continuation of the emotions and moods of the Fifth Symphony.”

The circumstances surrounding the composition of the Fifth Symphony – it was part of Shostakovich’s rehabilitation after the sweltering criticism that followed the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and resulted in the suppression of his Fourth Symphony – as well as comments on the Seventh made to friends place the composer’s “optimistic conception” in an interesting light. According to an interview with Flora Litvinova, the composer’s friend and neighbor in Kuibyshev, in Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Shostakovich conceived the “Leningrad” as a work about the struggle against fascism, but not just in its Nazi form. “ ‘National Socialism is not the only form of fascism; this music is about all forms of terror, slavery, and bondage of the spirit.’ Later on, when Dmitri Dmitriyevich got used to me and started to trust me, he told me straight out that the Seventh Symphony, and for that matter the Fifth as well, were not just about fascism, but about our system, or any form of totalitarian regime.”

The overall conception derives its power from Shostakovich’s vision of a work with dual layers of meaning. The first movement opens with a sweeping, resolute theme that plays an important and prominent part in the Symphony. An ensuing group of themes radiates a relaxed, carefree warmth. In lieu of a development section, Shostakovich instead gives us a protracted orchestral crescendo on a theme over an insistent rhythmic pattern. He called this the “invasion theme,” and, initially, it was interpreted to represent the German invasion of Russia. But Shostakovich was clear about its double meaning – “I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme.” It begins innocently, non-threateningly, soft and seemingly in the distance, and becomes increasingly ominous and terrifying as it gains in volume and proximity. It is one of the most remarkable passages in Shostakovich’s symphonic output; at its climax – distorted, tremendous, horrific – the composer brings back the opening theme, a gesture of defiance and heroism in the face of the invasion.

The second movement, the work’s scherzo, is strangely enigmatic in its outer sections, with extended wind solos and an unsettling rhythmic pattern in the strings. The central section, dominated by 3/8 (violins, violas, oboe, and English horn iterate a clear rhythmic pattern throughout), has a feeling of parody or mockery about it. The sonorities are strident, as is the tone.

Like the scherzo, the Adagio is in something like ternary form. It opens with a determined, chorale-like theme, played by the winds. The tone of the movement is unremittingly tragic, a long lament for the victims of the Stalinist purges and the siege. There are several affecting moments, such as the long flute solo that flowers into a duet and eventually ends up in the violins, spun out over a pizzicato accompaniment. The central section, marked Moderato risoluto by the composer, brings us back into the nightmare of the climactic moments of the first movement’s invasion.

The finale resembles the “invasion” section of the first movement in the unfolding of its musical argument. In masterly fashion, Shostakovich begins things with the temperature low, the power kept in check. The movement builds, over its course, with the composer momentarily relaxing or ratcheting up the tension, to a massive, C-major restatement of the Symphony’s opening theme. It is music that burns with a flame of defiance, and its power lies not in its human scale, but in its outsize grandeur and weighty eloquence.

— John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.