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Find more Music of Resistance
Facts are tricky things in award-winning author M. T. Anderson’s biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich: “Whether you’re using material from the Stalinist period or reminiscences from decades after Stalin’s death, everyone has reason to hide things, to keep silent, to alter details, to nudge things in different directions—and to forget,” he remarks. “The truth is one of the first victims of totalitarianism.”
The bounty of misinformation, as well as the environment that fostered it, makes for a compelling story, but more compelling still are the bizarre events in this period of Russian history that sometimes seem as if they’ve crossed the line into fiction. “Shostakovich’s life, unfortunately for him, was incredibly dramatic,” says Anderson, “like a dystopian novel that just happens to be real.”
It’s an apt comparison, which Anderson often embraces, both in his dynamic narrative style and in the details he chooses to include. Desperate Russians driven to cannibalism roved the streets of Leningrad during the 872-day siege, luring unsuspecting victims into dark alleys. A pair of Soviet spies in Germany had improbably perfect names—“one named Ivan, Son of Pantelei, and the other named Pantelei, Son of Ivan.” And, as if ripped from a tale of espionage, Shostakovich’s music was smuggled out of Russia, a story that especially inspired Anderson: “I discovered that his Leningrad symphony was copied onto microfilm, flown to Tehran, driven through the deserts of the Middle East to Cairo, then flown across the Atlantic to be performed in New York City.”
For Anderson, the way Shostakovich’s symphony made it out of Russia wasn’t the only thrilling part: “I was incredibly moved by the idea of microfilm being used to transmit not some fragment of Enigma code or German battle plan or some schematic diagram for the atomic bomb, but instead the score of a symphony people hoped would change the course of history.” The Leningrad symphony became a rallying cry, not only for the demoralized citizens of the city but also for people the world over, who were moved to contribute to Russian war relief efforts thanks to the stirring symphony that seemed to capture both the terror of living under Hitler’s siege and the triumph of a people determined to survive.
Shostakovich’s music has such a strong narrative quality that musicologists often debate over what certain passages literally represent. Anderson prefers a looser approach when describing the music, instead relying on “striking and evocative images as a kind of literary shorthand” to help readers, many of whom may have never heard Shostakovich’s music, understand the emotional resonance of the tunes. And it’s that emotional narrative that’s such a powerful entry point to understanding a period of modern Russian history that continues to have staggering repercussions. “The Soviet death toll in the defense of Leningrad alone is higher than the number of all Americans who have died in all wars since 1775,” notes Anderson. “Facts like these are important to recall as we seek to understand the mindset of contemporary Russia.”
Not only does the narrative quality of Shostakovich’s music provide a unique way to approach history, Anderson contends, but it makes his music more approachable, as well. “The type of orchestral music we’re all most familiar with now is movie scores—and a lot of the vocabulary of that music is drawn from the symphonies of Shostakovich and his contemporaries.” His cinematic music, with its intense emotional undertones, reflects the cataclysmic period and provides a kind of soundtrack to history, and it’s precisely those emotional undertones that make his music so appealing to teens. “Teen musicians often love Shostakovich because his music speaks so directly to them. It’s passionate, dark, urgent, sarcastic, raw, tender, exposed, and tremendously dramatic. Like teens themselves.”
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