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David Dalle
Thursday June 22nd, 2017 with David Dalle
"A day when a single piece of Russian music drowned all of Hitler's guns". Shostakovich's 7th symphony, his epic, wartime symphony's unexpected life as Soviet genius for propaganda meets American genius for marketing.

Today, on the 76th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), we will hear the most famous piece of music associated with that invasion, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony. As we have seen in the previous episodes in the Shostakovich cycle, the great composer was creating music in an extremely oppressive and dangerous political atmosphere. Every piece he composed would be subjected to intense political scrutiny and judged severely; the livelihood and ultimately the life of Shostakovich hung in the balance. Stalin placed extreme value in the propaganda value of music and art, which is partly why he policed it so strictly. And as we will see, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony took a life of its own after it left his pen: used brilliantly as propaganda by Stalin and then amplified enormously by American marketing genius, becoming the single most famous international act of wartime musical propaganda. This was ironic, as there were several reliable witnesses who attest that Shostakovich had the symphony in mind prior to the German invasion, its overall sombre and requiem-like nature reflecting the suffering and horror of Soviet citizens under Stalin during the 1930’s. However, before the German invasion, there would have been no possibility of actually having it performed. After the invasion and the siege of Leningrad, the work could easily be interpreted as anti-Hitler as much as anti-Stalin. Shostakovich finished most of the work in Leningrad until he was evacuated in October 1941. After the extremely positive reaction at its premiere in Samara and Moscow in March 1942, Stalin pounced on its propaganda possibilities. The symphony received its Leningrad premiere in August 1942, having been flown in to the besieged city. Surviving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra were collected with whatever other musicians could be gathered and given extra rations, and they managed a performance which was broadcast throughout the city. The performance was preceded by a recorded address by conductor Karl Eliasberg: "Comrades – a great occurrence in the cultural history of our city is about to take place. In a few minutes, you will hear for the first time the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, our outstanding fellow citizen. He wrote this great composition in the city during the days when the enemy was, insanely, trying to enter Leningrad. When the fascist swine were bombing and shelling all Europe, and Europe believed the days of Leningrad were over. But this performance is witness to our spirit, courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!" This performance in starving, dying Leningrad would become the stuff of legend, symbolizing Leningrad's heroic perseverance through one of the longest and most deadly sieges in history. However, it was when the symphony crossed the world to the US that the legend was amplified to truly titanic scale. The US and the Soviet Union had suddenly become unlikely allies in a war that a large segment of the American public wanted nothing to do with, despite President Roosevelt's desire to intervene. Up until June 1941, the USSR had a (truth be told, a very fair) negative reputation in the US. Stalin's oppression and aggressive antagonism towards the US and the West, and particularly the USSR's de facto alliance with Nazi Germany where they both invaded Poland after agreeing to divide up the land between them (Poland, the Baltics), as well as the USSR invasion of Finland. To most Americans, this all put the USSR in the same camp as Nazi Germany. After the German invasion, the Soviet Union was suddenly allied with the UK and supported by the US. Roosevelt's administration had to shift 180 degrees from portraying the USSR as a Godless enemy to being a heroic ally who deserved American help. Through the Lend-Lease program, millions of tons of war material was being sent to the USSR, and the average American saw little in return for it. Along came the 7th symphony, and, as a new symphony by Shostakovich, there was already pre-existing interest in it. Great American conductors such as Koussevitzky and Stokowski had already championed earlier pre-war symphonies and were interested in premiering any new Shostakovich symphonies. However, the media, Soviet and American diplomatic personnel, and musical promoters and agents of Soviet music in the US all worked to create a media frenzy around the 7th symphony. Every aspect of the work's creation and journey and arrival to the US was hyped up, from stories of Shostakovich alternating between working on the symphony and working shifts as a firefighter during bombing raids of Leningrad (fictional); the exotic and lengthy route the microfilm of the score had to travel from Moscow to the US: by air to Tehran, by car from Tehran to Cairo (nearly 3000km through Iran, Iraq, Jordan, the Sinai), by plane from Cairo with a stop in Accra and then to Recife in Brazil, then to Miami and finally ending up in New York (true); a "Battle Royale" of famous American conductors fighting over the right to premiere "this hot baby of a Seventh Symphony" (greatly exaggerated). The American premiere did come as a live radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toscanini along with Shostakovich appearing on the cover of Time magazine. This gave Shostakovich nationwide fame: "People who had no interest in music, people who still stutter over Tchaikovsky’s name could pronounce the name of Shostakovich". The symphony was performed over 60 times in the US during the 1942-1943 and it was broadcast on 2000 radio stations, completely unheard of for a contemporary work. Millions of Americans heard the work, and more heard about it and Shostakovich in these glowing terms. Shostakovich's 7th symphony, presented as a heroic tale of blood and sacrifice in struggle against Hitler, as propaganda, worked. American opinions on the USSR shifted almost completely in favour, the Russian War Relief fund, created after the invasion, leaned very heavily on this symphony and raised over 17 million dollars (in 1942 dollars!) in 1942-43. In the first decades after the end of the war, the 7th symphony's fortunes fell away. Without the wartime context and urgency to sustain interest in it, most music critics dismissed it as crude programmatic "battle" music (though Shostakovich never mentioned and even denied any literal programmatic intent, i.e. the first movement depicting the invasion etc.) and crude propaganda. This unfortunately became the general consensus even among Russian musical elite until recent decades where it has been more favourably re-evaluated. Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov writing about attending a performance with Alfred Schnittke, a Soviet composer a generation after Shostakovich: “…listening to the Seventh in New York in 1994 with the composer Alfred Schnittke, who had come for the American premiere of one of his works. When the performance was over, I saw that Schnittke was astounded by what he had heard. Turning his pale, agitated face to me, he said that he had seriously underestimated the Seventh: ‘It’s a masterpiece’” It is a masterpiece. And perhaps it can never be truly heard separated from the enormous suffering and heroism of humanity under Stalin and Hitler. But why should it be? Music is about life in all its horror and glory.
We will hear a live recording with the Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, which was the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in 1942.
Symphony No. 7 'Leningrad'
Dmitri Shostakovich/Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Dmitriev - Symphony No. 7 - Water Lily Acoustics
Following, the Shostakovich, we will hear music from stops on the famous 1942 journey of the microfilm, between Moscow & New York: Tehran, Cairo, Accra, Recife.
Bidade Zaman
Marzieh - Elahe Naz - Caltex
A Night on Mohamed Ali Street
Mahmoud Fadl & the Drummers of the Nile - Mahmoud Fadl & the Drummers of the Nile - Piranha
Funeral Medley
Roadmaster & Agyemang - The Old High Life - Art Hurts Records
Maracatu, Fetes et danses à Recife
Ney de Castro - Percussions Bresiliennes - Harmonia Mundi
Interactive CKCU