M. T. ANDERSON, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad Candlewick Press/Walker Books Australia, 1 Dec 2015, 456pp., $27.99 (hbk), ISBN 9780763668181
This superb book of history tells the story of the life of Russian modernist composer Dmitri Shostakovich, leading up to his writing of his seventh symphony during the siege of Leningrad in 1941 as the Germans surrounded the city and decided to wait until the population starved before moving in. throughout the book there are many rare and interesting photographs of individuals and street scenes. M. T. Anderson has a wonderful feel for the kinds of historical details that enliven the telling and create suspense for the reader. Anderson is also open about the historical uncertainties and the debates among historians over what actually happened or how the events are best brought into a narrative.
This is a sophisticated book written in an immediately accessible manner. The account of the years of terror for the Russia population under Stalin is vivid, disturbing and complex enough to become material for many conversations about dictatorship, socialism, evil, madness, the judging of means against ends, and the difficulties faced by nations attempting to drag themselves into modernity.
Following this, the account of the Russian experience of the Second World War carries equally astounding material, all told with an eye on the human, the particular, the telling detail, and finally the way blunders, stupidity and paranoia can dictate the direction large events are taking. As the Germans advanced into Russia in 1941, for instance, many villagers in outlying provinces hailed them as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny, not understanding that the Germans were carrying out Hitler’s command to treat the Russian as sub-humans, and if possible exterminate them.
Shostakovich’s music is discussed in its artistic, political and social contexts with unerring clarity, leaving the reader eager to finish the book and then go and listen to the symphonies of this genius who might not have been a hero in the war, but was certainly so responsive to the pain of the people of Leningrad that he could create a monument to them in music. Highly recommended for its story and its introduction of history as a field of inquiry: 10-17 years.
Reviewed by Kevin Brophy