On August 9, 1942, the Seventh Symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich, often referred to as the Leningrad Symphony, was performed in the blockaded Leningrad. A hymn to the Russian courage and strong spirit, the concert knocked the bottom out of Hitler’s ambitious claim that August 9 would be the day Leningrad surrendered.
Shostakovich completed the most of the Symphony in Leningrad by the end of August of 1941, just several days before the 900-day blockade was imposed. As the composer reminisced, he said there was no other time in his life when his work was running so smoothly. Each sheet of music had the letters “V.T.” on them, indicating an air raid alert (Vozdushnaya Trevoga in Russian): this was the way Shostakovich marked his breaks during work. The newspaper “Leningradskaya Pravda” wrote about his progress in writing between newsflashes about bombings. Shostakovich took turns taking watch on the roofs during air raids – his job was to throw the burning bombs off the roofs – and, though told to be careful, he objected that the only way his symphony could be true was if he lived through every moment of the tragedy.
The finale of the symphony was written in the city of Kuibyshev, now Saratov, where he was evacuated, and where the Symphony premiered.
In May of 1942, the score of the symphony was delivered by plane to the blockaded Leningrad.
The Symphony was planned to be performed by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. Though the score dictated that there should be 79 musicians involved, only 15 were able to respond immediately. Many of the musicians had died from starvation, while survivors were in a terrible condition. Though sick and starving, people were elated to be a part of such event, and they eagerly drew out their concert outfits, unpacked their instruments and started rehearsals in the cold and dark Radio Committee building. The first rehearsal only lasted for 15 minutes: the musicians were too exhausted to carry on longer, but they knew they would make it.
The commandment of the Leningradsky Front issued a decree, calling all musicians off the front to add up to the orchestra, allowing them extra food rations. Eliasberg himself made personal rounds in hospitals in search of musicians who used to play in the fleet and field orchestras. Already suffering from dystrophy, and hardly able to stand, he still managed to encourage and inspire his musicians. At rehearsals the conductor was very demanding and thorough. He knew this Symphony was all he could give the people of Leningrad at this time, and saw it as his duty to do his best in it.
The performance itself was a grand event. Regardless of the bombings and air raids, all the chandeliers were lit, which significantly raised the spirits of both musicians and the audience.
The house was full – the lines for tickets were even longer than bread lines. The audience was very diverse, from marines, infantrymen, and antiaircraft gunners, to the Leningrad intelligentsia. Many of them were so touched they weren’t ashamed to cry. The great music seemed to embody what each of the listeners was feeling – a faith in victory, devotion and infinite love for the native country.
The recording of this performance was broadcast all over the world, transmitting the unbending spirit of the Soviet people across the globe: to Hitler in his office in Germany, the Nazis in the trenches outside Leningrad, and the exhausted Soviet soldiers – not to mention anyone else on the planet with a radio.
In the course of the 80 minute long performance, no bomb fell on the ground. In accordance with the order by the Commander Govorov of the Leningradsky Front, the special operation was performed on the eve of the concert, as the Soviet guns had crippled the German arsenal. The German troops were stunned to hear the sounds of music as they were sure the city had almost died out.
Later, after the war was over, two tourists from the German Democratic Republic found Eliasberg and confessed, that “it was then, on August 9, that we realized we were going to lose in this war. We sensed your power, which could conquer famine, fear, and even death.”