Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad
Notes by TŌN violist Celia Daggy
The Dichotomy of Fame and Rebellion
Dmitri Shostakovich was himself both a distributor and victim of Soviet propaganda. For most of his professional life, he had to toe the line between pleasing the state with his music, and remaining true to himself and his people. Some of his works won accolades from Stalin’s regime and others were swiftly banned. Seeing his own image be tossed back and forth was undoubtedly a source of extreme anxiety for our dear Dmitri. Despite being the most famous Russian composer of his day, he allegedly kept a packed suitcase at his front door at all times in case he were to be taken away by the state in the middle of the night, so as to not disturb his sleeping family. This dichotomy of fame and rebellion is easily heard in Shostakovich’s music.
Tyranny and Totalitarianism
The Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad (something of a propaganda piece itself), received great praise from the Soviet government. It is a narrative work; you will hear in the first movement the theme and drums of the Nazi soldiers marching into the city, and by the end of the symphony, the Russians eventual victory in capturing Leningrad back. The work is greatly, almost grotesquely nationalist, and reportedly had the entire audience weeping at its premiere. However, there is an underlying message about the horrors of fascism – and not just the Nazis. Shostakovich privately revealed that the symphony “[is] not only about fascism but about our country . . . tyranny and totalitarianism.”
Many of us can swiftly identify propaganda as it appears in history books—posters with cartoonish political figures and some sort of obvious state-sponsored message, many of which seem exaggerated and absurd. We, as enlightened members of the 21st century, wonder how such messages could control a society so strongly. Yet we may not be as attuned to identifying propaganda when it is under our own noses. It is not as obvious as those characterized posters from the days of old. Think about those questionable news stories we all hear on TV or the internet, where facts may be distorted and altered to fit a certain agenda, or cherry-picked to only show part of the whole story. Are these not themselves forms of propaganda?