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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7, 'Leningrad'

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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Symphony No. 7 'Leningrad', Op. 60

Few symphonies since Beethoven's Fifth have attracted thedegree of extra-musical speculation accorded Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony.Although ideas for a Seventh Symphony had begun coming to mind the previousyear, the work that emerged has been regarded as an uninhibited response to theNazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 - the ensuing siege of Leningradlasting for 870 days and costing over a million lives. Shostakovich beganworking on the new symphony in the besieged city that July, completing thefirst three movements by the end of September. In early October he and his wifeand children were evacuated, first to Moscow and then to the city of Kuibyshev(later Samara). He finished the whole work towards the end of December.

The first movement begins confidently, the striding openingtheme on strings in strong contrast with the pastoral theme, featuring delicatecontributions from woodwind, preceding it. This fades out, to be replaced by anidea on pizzicato violins over a quietly insistent side drum rhythm. Thusbegins the notorious 'war machine' crescendo, which replaces the expecteddevelopment section. Pizzicato violins are succeeded in turn by flute andcellos, upper woodwind and strings, alternating oboe and bassoon, muted brass,intertwining woodwind; then violins, full strings, horns and violins, brass andstrings, upper strings and brass with percussion, finally the full orchestralpanoply, assisted by three side-drummers. A new martial theme suddenly breaksin, driving the movement to a dramatic apex where its opening theme sounds outin baleful, brutalised terms. The music calms to a wistful recall of the secondtheme, presaging a stoical recall of the first theme by bassoon over detachedpiano chords. Sombre brass motifs frame an achingly nostalgic transformation ofthis theme, then pizzicato strings and distant side drum quizzically recall the'war theme' to round off the movement.

The second movement is a rare example in Shostakovich of asymphonic intermezzo, evocative but essentially abstract in nature. Theviolin's elegant opening idea is followed by a plaintive melody for oboe,accompanied then succeeded by strings. The shrill woodwind and vaunting brassof the central section lead to a martial theme which echoes that of thepreceding movement. The opening theme is recalled, then the plaintive melody onbass clarinet, imaginatively accompanied by harp and flute. The first thememakes a hesitant final appearance, and the movement ends in uneasy repose.

Plangent woodwind open the third movement with aStravinskian chorale (the Symphony of Psalms was a work Shostakovich studiedintensively both before and during the symphony's composition), answered by animpassioned threnody for upper strings. The contrast is reiterated, followed bya bassoon rejoinder. Over pizzicato strings, flutes sound out a pensive melodyto which other woodwind add their counterpoints. Strings gently take over thetheme, bringing it to an avowedly Mahlerian resting-point. The agitated centralsection now bursts in, goaded on by strident brass and a raucous side drum. Atits peak, the initial chorale reappears on full brass, tailing off into aheartfelt recall of the strings' threnody. The flute theme cautiouslyre-emerges, transferred to lower strings, before a recall of the threnody andits bassoon rejoinder bring the movement to a sombre close.

Without pause, the finale opens with a fragmented themesounding uncertainly on upper strings and icy woodwind. A tramping rhythm forlower strings sets off the first main portion of the movement, an energeticallegro building to a powerful, martial climax on full orchestra. A trenchantrhythmic episode, which makes prominent use of col legno strings, slowsactivity, the central section bringing elegiac exchanges between upper andlower strings, pointed up by solo woodwind interjections. The music dies downto a hushed recall of the movement's opening idea, emerging from the shadowsas, propelled by a revolving rhythmic motif on lower strings, it gradually gainsintensity and momentum. Various ideas from earlier in the movement are alludedto as the music drives forward, eventually arriving at a resplendenttransformation of the work's opening theme. From here the symphony presses onto a combative and determined, but by no means optimistic or triumphalconclusion.

Reaction to the Seventh Symphony has been one of extremes.The first performance, in Kubiyshev on 5th March 1942, and the Moscow premi?¿rethree years later were broadcast nation-wide. Microfilmed and flown, viaTehran, to London, the work was broadcast by the BBC on 22nd June, heard at theRoyal Albert Hall a week later, then given a studio performance in New Yorkunder Toscanini on 19th July. In Leningrad the following month, a much-depletedRadio Orchestra, reinforced by any musician who could be released from combatduring the siege of the city, gave an account which personified the heroicaspiration of the music itself. Hundreds of performances followed during theremainder of the war, after which the work fell out of the repertoire,criticized for its excessive length and loose-limbed elaboration of ideas.Since the composer's death in 1975, it has gradually returned to favour, nowwith the added possibility of its inspiration stemming as much from Stalin'satrocities during the 1930s as from Hitler's subsequent brutalities. Whateverthe motivation behind its genesis, Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony stands asa testament to heroism and human endurance amid overwhelming conflict andcultural crisis.

Richard Whitehouse

Item number 8557256
Barcode 747313225620
Release date 01/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Shostakovich, Dmitry
Shostakovich, Dmitry
Conductors Yablonsky, Dmitry
Yablonsky, Dmitry
Orchestras Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Producers Doronina, Lubov
Doronina, Lubov
Disc: 1
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, "Leningrad"
1 Allegretto
2 Moderato (Poco allegretto)
3 Adagio
4 Allegro non troppo
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