The highly-touted “Leningrad” concert of the North Carolina Symphony began with Mozart’s Symphony No 25 in G minor, K.183, composed in 1773. That summer Mozart with his father had been to Vienna to seek an appointment from Empress Maria Theresa. It didn’t work out, but while in Vienna Mozart experienced the current trend of experimenting with the so-called “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) music. Such music, usually in a minor key emphasized expressive harmonies and rhythmic agitation; a significant movement toward romanticism. On returning to Salzburg, Mozart wrote his own symphony in the new style. He used his skill to explore the limits of this new approach. It was a significant step in his development as a composer and gave us one of the most charming and delightful of his symphonies.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad” is an epochal work. At around 80 minutes, it is among the longest symphonies in the repertoire. Its subject is war and tyranny with all the human tragedy and emotion therewith attached. Its influence has been wide, intense and varied. As with other such epochal works, it has generated tales that approach the level of myth and it has aroused controversy and debate. When was the symphony actually begun: before the German invasion or in response to the invasion? What is the source and meaning of the famous “invasion theme” in the first movement? Is this symphony a great work of art or is it nothing more than propaganda music for a bad war movie. Many western critics dismissed the symphony as a series of bombastic platitudes not worthy of serious consideration. There is no doubt that it was a powerful symbol in bolstering efforts to defeat the axis war machine and the public embraced it as such.

To understand this work one must be reminded that between 1928 and 1941 nearly eight million (some say more) Soviets were murdered for political reasons. No one dared speak their mind. It is said that when things were politically tense, Shostakovich would sleep in his hallway with a packed suitcase so that when (not if) the secret police arrived it would not upset his family. Anyone publicly seen or overheard to be unhappy would simply disappear. Living in such terror is almost unimaginable to us in the western world.

This all changed with the German invasion in June 1941. Censorship was somewhat relaxed, and having a common external enemy united the Russian people and allowed them to express pent up fear and grief; as long as it was expressed in the context of the war against Hitler.

The evidence is now well established that Shostakovich had started his Seventh Symphony before the Nazi invasion and that the seed out of which it grew was his expression in music of the suffering he had experienced under Stalin. This composer had the skill to write music with subtle ambiguity that could be taken as compliance with the Stalinist agenda while hidden meanings could also be perceived. It is clear that as the symphony took form it became a powerful emotional expression of the Russian people, their love of Mother Russia, their determination and their capacity for suffering. Later, after the war Shostakovich was quoted by a trusted friend as saying “the Seventh (and the Fifth as well) was not only about fascism but about our country and generally about all tyranny and totalitarianism.”

The first performance in Leningrad was an event of mythic proportion. The renowned Leningrad Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated before the siege was locked in. What members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra that could be found, many of them sick and emaciated, were rounded up along with any musician with an instrument. Several were recalled from the front. The concert was presented on August 9, 1942, the day Hitler had chosen earlier to celebrate the fall of Leningrad at the Astoria Hotel in the city. Loudspeakers were set up strategically to broadcast the performance throughout the city as well as across the battle lines to the German forces. A German general is reported to have remarked, “When it finished I realized that never ever shall we be able to enter Leningrad. It is not a city that can be conquered.”     

The first movement, around 25 minutes long, begins with a depiction of the strength of the people and the peaceful life (sic!) before the war. As a violin solo soars up and out of sight like smoke from a chimney at the beginning of winter, the side drum begins a relentless rhythm. At first a benign and simple theme plays above the drum. It becomes relentless, ominous, and brutal. It is the invasion, the horror of war. This “invasion theme” reaches overwhelming intensity before giving way finally to a determined victory. The peace theme returns, but is changed into a Requiem. At the very end of the movement, the invasion theme returns as a reminder of the need for eternal vigilance.

Shostakovich titled the second movement “Memories.” It is a lyrical scherzo recalling happy events, but with an underlying sense of sadness and meditation.

The third movement is labeled “Our Country’s Wide Spaces.” This movement surely is seasoned with the tears of many millions. One would be hard put to find a musical expression of grief as intense as this.

The fourth movement which follows without pause celebrates victory. Before the powerful conclusion, previous themes are brought back to remind us of what has gone before. The blazing C major finish is somewhat ambiguous; victory but without joy. It does seem that victory, especially military victory, must always be tempered with assessment of the cost. We have been taught that the prize is worth the cost but we might well question the necessity. Shostakovich’s music is subtle and complex, and perhaps if we hear it aright it raises probing questions that may leave us with our own painful and ambivalent feelings about war.

Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar was born in Uruguay to Austrian parents and currently has conducting responsibilities with the RTVE Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Madrid, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival. He has a wide breadth of musical expertise. His special interests are Opera and music from the less well-known repertoire.

Kalmar’s conducting was energetic, but not flamboyant. His gestures were meaningful if not always necessary, and there were moments where he pretty much got out of the way and let the musicians play. Only a very confident conductor will dare that. The NC Symphony, with extra horns, trumpets and trombones in the choir area and a large array of other extra instruments and percussion was awesome. The Mozart was all elegance and refinement, which was proper even for a Sturm und Drang Symphony. The Shostakovich was powerful, tender and gut-wrenching, which was also quite proper. Given the huge musical forces required, one does not often get a chance to hear this monumental work and it is an unforgettable experience.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday in Raleigh and on Sunday in Chapel Hill.  Please see the sidebar for information.