When World War II broke out, Shostakovich was offered the chance to teach at a conservatoire in Tashkent, but insisted on remaining in Leningrad with his family, working as a fire officer, until they were finally evacuated.
He took the draft score of the Seventh Symphony with him, completing the last movement in the war capital Kuibyshev, where it was premiered on 5 March 1942. Conductor Vasily Petrenko tells us more about the work…
‘The people of Russia were caught between two evils: which would they prefer? Stalin was a murderer but gave them national identity; Nazism promised genocide. I feel here he was raging against all anti-human force. At the beginning we are dealing with some of the most beautiful music ever written, which is then systematically destroyed. You can hear that senseless, mechanical force in the motoric drums, the chilling banality of the march.
‘You can hear his experience, too, of being a fire warden on the roofs of St Petersburg. He refused to leave for a long time yet he was still evacuated before the really horrible things happened, before people started eating each other. What he had witnessed was the amazing strength of the human spirit, in defending each other and their city.
‘He felt a responsibility to get as many musicians as possible back from the front line to play in the Leningrad performance. They were given food: that’s why there are so many extra brass, harps, woodwinds – he was literally saving lives. And so the Symphony is a memorial to the people of Leningrad. The live broadcast was a powerful symbol of resilience, for the country, and for the Allies.’
What’s on at the Proms tonight?
Monday 16 July 2018
Magnus Lindberg Clarinet Concerto
Shostakovich Symphony No. 7, ‘Leningrad’
Mark Simpson (clarinet)
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena