Symphony For The City Of The Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson

The Blurb On The Back:

In September of 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history – two and a half years of bombardment and starvation.  More than a million citizens perished.  Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, the relatives of the dead having neither the means nor the strength to bury them.  Desperate citizens burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and – eventually – even one another to stay alive.

Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogised, and commemorated his fellow citizens – the Leningrad Symphony.  This testament of courage was copied onto microfilm, driven across the Middle East, and flown over the deserts of North Africa to be performed in the United States – where it played a surprising role in strengthening the Grand Alliance against the Axis powers. 

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds.  It is also a look at the power – and layered meaning – of music in beleaguered lives. 

You can order SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH AND THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD by M. T. Anderson from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

T. Anderson leaves the world of fiction to create that YA rarity: a non-fiction book for the commercial market, which mixes history, biography and music in a way that had me gripped from start to finish.

The book is about Dmitry Shostakovich, a Russian composer and St Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad) who was caught up in the early stages of the Nazi siege during World War II and who was inspired to write his seventh symphony (known as the Leningrad Symphony), which was viewed as so significant that copies of the score were smuggled from Russia to the USA where it was played to help bolster public support for the Russian war effort.  Anderson starts with Shostakovich’s childhood and the impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution, examining the evidence for the legends that surround him (including that he was present at Lenin’s arrival in the city).  Anderson does well at bringing the man to life, acknowledging his weaknesses and his strengths and making good use of photographs from the period to help illustrate the text.  The two great strengths of the book are:

  1. its depiction of life under Stalin, which is absolutely terrifying. Anderson teases out the uncertainty and fear of life during the purges and how they struck every layer of society before honing in on the impact on Shostakovich and his family (most notably when Stalin dismissed a symphony that had previously been very popular) and then widening it out to show the disastrous impact that it had for World War II, with Russia effectively being unprepared and lacking in experienced military leadership, leading to heavy and sustained defeats; and
  1. Shostakovich’s music and the debate as to the extent to which it was influenced by his experiences. I didn’t know much about music before reading this book but Anderson really brings the pieces to life, evoking them in such a way that I ended up downloading a copy of the Leningrad Symphony so that I could experience it for myself.

Anderson is also good on discussing whether Shostakovich was a victim of the Communist regime or complicit with it and I found his discussion of available sources was informative and balanced.  All in all, I didn’t have any criticism of this book – it’s a really good read about a really interesting subject and I think it would fascinate both teens and adult readers alike.

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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