The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1925 and has been performing classical music ever since. It is the only symphony orchestra in Russia to have survived World War II, and it still performs today.

The leningrad première of shostakovich’s symphony no. 7 was a historic event that took place on 15th December 1941. It marked the first public performance of the work in Russia since its completion in 1937.

On August 29, 1941, troops of the German Sixteenth Army captured Mga, a strategically significant railroad town thirty miles southeast of Leningrad, previously known as St. Petersburg. Mga was recovered the following day after a valiant assault by Soviet troops defending the famous city of Peter the Great and Lenin, but on the 31st, Wehrmacht soldiers wrested the town back from the Red Army. Early in September, it was apparent that the German advance post would hold, thus cutting the city’s final train connection to the rest of the Soviet Union, a fact trumpeted in a communiqué from German army headquarters proclaiming that “the iron ring around Leningrad has been closed.”

This deed marked the start of World War II’s longest, most violent, most spectacular siege. The battle of Leningrad not only won it a place in the Soviet-German war’s military history, but it also inspired a mammoth orchestral piece that serves as a living memory of the city’s epic suffering.

Leningrad Symphony: A Symphony of War

Dimitri Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad, wrote the majority of his Seventh, or Leningrad, Symphony there. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The terrible news of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa assault on the Soviet Union had reached Leningrad at noon on June 22, when loudspeakers throughout the city broadcast the voice of Commissar for Foreign Affairs V.M. Molotov declaring the plain facts and proclaiming: ‘Our cause is righteous.’ The adversary will be defeated. We shall be victorious.’ A thirty-four-year-old composer whose work was among the most important cultural output Communist Russia sent to the outside world was among the thousands of Leningraders who heard the news. Despite not being a household name, Dimitri Shostakovich was well-known among classical music fans in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Shostakovich’s unique, creative, and emotionally expressive symphonic compositions established him as one of contemporary music’s foremost talents.

An globally renowned figure like Shostakovich was a mixed gift from the Soviet leadership’s viewpoint. On the one hand, his music’s frequent inclusion in concert programs in the capitalist West seemed to confirm the Soviet system’s achievements. The language of music, on the other hand, is much less exact than the written word or even visual representations. The sounds of a Shostakovich piece could never be sure whether they were really praising the joys of a Communist society — or sarcastically reflecting on its numerous flaws, which were never to be publicly recognized by Kremlin arbiters of taste and ideas.

Shostakovich was very much a Soviet artist by birth and training. In 1942, he said, “We Soviet musicians are always looking for a new style.” ‘We must continue…constantly improving ourselves,…never forgetting that our art serves the public.’

As the Communist dictator Josef Stalin established state control over all areas of daily life, his reputation rose and fell, only to rise again. Shostakovich distinguished himself on the world stage with works like his charmingly insouciant Symphony No. 1 (1924-25) and his scandalously R-rated opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-33). The Stalinist system of top-down control despised such an independent voice, and the brash young composer was officially chastised in 1936 for his “deliberately discordant, confused stream of sounds.”

This official condemnation had severe consequences since it came at a period when individuals accused of being enemies of the state were subjected to show trials, followed by executions or harsh incarceration. The composer eventually responded to the accusations with his Fifth Symphony (1937), a work that — at least on one level — expressed the loyal response of a good Soviet citizen-artist to criticism by following a prescribed path (struggle ending in triumph) in a musical language that the masses could understand. (The work’s quality is such that it is still one of the most frequently performed Shostakovich works, and its meaning is obscure enough that some contemporary commentators praise it for its subtle subversion.) The instant popularity of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provided a much-needed reprieve for the composer. Shostakovich’s strong friend and supporter, Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, had been captured, prosecuted, and executed for treason only six months previous to the premiere.

Shostakovich, like millions of his compatriots, was moved by the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War. He attempted to join in the Red Army twice but was denied due to his bad vision. The world-famous composer then joined a Home Guard unit made up of members of the Leningrad Conservatory (where Shostakovich taught), and worked for several weeks to construct defensive lines that Soviet military authorities were belatedly constructing around the city.

Shostakovich was then assigned to a firefighting unit, where he was responsible for putting out any fires that may occur on the conservatory’s roof. The school’s directors constantly found reasons to keep their most important faculty member busy elsewhere, so this job was mostly symbolic.

Nonetheless, on July 29, 1941, Soviet propagandists photographed fireman Shostakovich for a series of photographs that were widely circulated and came to represent Leningrad’s defenders’ unwavering resolve. Shostakovich had also utilized his enormous skills to compose minor musical pieces for the sparse instrumental ensembles employed to entertain soldiers at the front. He also composed several unique marches and a stirring patriotic song that ended with the words: ‘The great hour has arrived, Stalin leads us to war, his command is law!’ ‘Enter the terrible struggle with vigor!’ Shostakovich then started work on a large-scale symphonic piece on July 19.

‘When firearms talk, the muses remain quiet,’ says an ancient Russian adage. While war, soldiers, and dramatic battle scenes have been subjects for art almost since the first weapon was raised in anger, the disruptive and destructive nature of military actions makes it difficult, if not impossible, to complete anything as sophisticated as a symphony in the midst of the chaos. Shostakovich, on the other hand, set out to accomplish just that.

He subsequently said, ‘I couldn’t not write it.’ ‘War was everywhere.’ ‘No composer before Shostakovich had written a musical work depicting a still-raging war, and no composer had ever attempted to describe a future victory, in music, with such power and conviction, at a time when his people fought for their very right to exist as a nation,’ said musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky.

A apparently unending sequence of German wins and Red Army losses had characterized the time between June 22 and July 19. Adolf Hitler’s troops destroyed all Soviet attempts to stop them, owing to superior organization, efficient tactics, and adaptable combat plans. Russian military strategists were shaken by catastrophe after disaster as one position after another was either bypassed or surrounded, thanks to their completely misguided faith in their defensive plans. While German commanders were focused on the prize of Moscow, they recognized that capturing Leningrad was a necessary prerequisite, thus it loomed big in Hitler’s plan.

When Shostakovich started composing his symphony, German columns pressed Red Army soldiers who were fighting to maintain a line extending southeast from the Gulf of Finland down the Luga River to Lake Il’men’, some 75 to 100 miles south of Leningrad. It was September 3 by the time he finished a full copy of what would become the opening movement of his new symphony, and German troops were preparing for a frontal attack on the city, their shells reaching Leningrad proper.

Shostakovich planned up a war symphony that was gigantic in scale by completing a first movement that lasted more than twenty-six minutes at a period when whole contemporary symphonies seldom surpassed twenty-five to thirty-five minutes in duration. He was writing at a ‘amazing pace,’ according to one observer. The Soviet propaganda narrative was that the composer was inspired by the historic events; nevertheless, it is more probable that he relied on material he had previously drawn out for other reasons before the war broke out. Shostakovich claimed to have drawn inspiration from the experiences of “those regular Soviet people before whose courage he bowed in adoration,” as Leningrad conductor Nikolai Rabinovich recalled.

Shostakovich named the first movement of the symphony’s first movement “War” while the symphony was still in the planning stages. A modest tattoo performed by the snare drummer introduces what one reviewer characterized as a “little puppet-like melody” and subsequent Soviet authors claimed to be a “psychological picture of the adversary” six minutes after the piece’s sweeping, aggressive beginning. (The composer recommended using a relief drummer since the snare drummer’s repeated section goes on for 352 bars.) The song starts off softly, almost lighthearted, but as the movement progresses, it gains in intensity and darkens in tone, becoming almost Goyaesque in its severity.

This melody, whose origins are unknown (some attribute it to an operetta by Franz Lehár, said to be one of Hitler’s favorites, while others believe it is a masterful distortion of “Deutschland über alles”), is heard twelve times and differs only in dynamics and orchestration, similar to Maurice Ravel’s famous Bolero. Shostakovich was anticipating the connection. ‘Let them blame me, but that’s how I hear battle,’ he told a friend.

A visual image is also conveyed on a few score pages, with notes placed with ordered precision to simulate a huge formation marching across Red Square. A heartbreaking requiem for the deceased appears towards the conclusion of the lengthy piece, which one musician compared to a “mother looking for her dead son on the battlefield.”

On September 17, the second movement was completed. By that time, portions of the German-allied Finnish army were aggressively approaching Leningrad from the northwest, while Wehrmacht operations south of the city continued to devour Soviet positions and defensive troops. The situation had grown so severe that Stalin placed Red Army General G.K. Zhukov, Stalin’s chief military troubleshooter, in charge of Leningrad’s defense.

Shostakovich subsequently dubbed this elegiac part (which runs approximately half the length of the first) “living in contrast to war,” and named it “Memories” or “Reminiscences” in his early planning scheme. ‘An hour ago I completed the score of two movements of a big symphonic work,’ the composer stated in a broadcast aired across the city on Leningrad Radio that day. If I can pull it off, if I can finish the third and fourth movements, I may be able to name it my Seventh Symphony. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this. So that the radio listeners who are now listening to me know that life in our city is normal.’

The pace of fighting along the city’s southern approaches remained relentless for the following twelve days, with both sides eventually collapsing in fatigue in late September. Both assaults and defenses suffered a significant number of casualties. Shostakovich, on the other hand, completed the adagio, or slow movement, of his symphony on September 29. It was originally named ‘Our Country’s Wide Vistas’ or ‘Native Expanse,’ and it has been regarded as some of Shostakovich’s most beautiful music, despite the fact that he wasn’t renowned for his sensitive moments. ‘The ‘Adagio’ of the Seventh speaks, maybe more than any other piece of music, for victims – for the innocents who have been robbed of hope and reduced to their last shred of dignity,’ said critic Kenneth Furie. Shostakovich was ordered to leave Leningrad the following day, September 30. On October 1, he left the city with his wife and two children, flying to Moscow. While uprooting and transporting vital weapons factories eastward, away from the oncoming German troops, Soviet authorities also took steps to save its cultural assets. Before Shostakovich got his peremptory orders to fly out of harm’s path, there had already been numerous rounds of evacuations of significant creative material and people from Leningrad.

Because Moscow was under direct attack by the Germans, the composer and his family were forced to escape once again, this time onboard a refugee train. Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Shostakovich’s own opera Lady Macbeth, and the manuscript for his new symphony were the only works he took with him. The final was lost for a short while during the frantic, chaotic trip, but it was found undamaged. On October 22, Shostakovich and his family arrived in Kuybyshev (modern-day Samara), the reserve Soviet capital, where one of many centers for creative Soviet exiles had been created.

Shostakovich’s focus was broken as a result of the hasty departure. Shostakovich was stymied, despite his public declarations to the contrary. ‘You know, something broke within me as soon as I got on that train,’ he informed a buddy. His writer’s block stemmed in part from the long journey, but more so from the cramped living quarters in Kuybyshev, where he, his family, and a piano were all packed into a one-room apartment. Shostakovich was unable to begin writing the symphony’s conclusion until December 10, when he was able to get a separate room in which to write.

Military conditions in faraway Leningrad, where members of Shostakovich’s family stayed, had not changed. With a concerted German assault on Moscow beginning, Stalin summoned Zhukov while also ordering the defenders of Leningrad to fight back. As a consequence, starting in mid-October, a series of targeted offensives were launched. The assaults simply maintained the status quo, adding to the mounting toll of casualties. The speed of events was finally halted by the cold and snow. Leningrad remained a Soviet fortress at the end of December, but it was heavily fortified and set to face the coldest, bloodiest winter in its history.

On December 27, Shostakovich revealed the completion of his Seventh Symphony, now dedicated to the city of Leningrad, at a small party for friends in Kuybyshev. The fourth and final movement lasted around sixteen minutes, which was somewhat longer than the second but not quite as long as the third. The passage, originally dubbed “Victory,” emanated somber resolve and conviction, with no heroic flourishes or morale-boosting bombast. (A proposal to end with a choir part chanting Stalin’s adulation was also rejected by the composer.) There were no overt signals to the crowds, simply a tenacious battle that ended with the victor grimly pleased but not overjoyed. Despite this, Pravda dutifully declared that the conclusion signified “the victory of light over evil.” In the closing bars, a rhythmic reference is made to the most renowned victory music of WWII: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’s dot-dot-dot-dash beginning.

The state’s cultural propaganda apparatus quickly organized a concert in Kuybyshev, using the pit band from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which had been evacuated there. The job was entrusted to conductor Samuil Samosud, who is more renowned for his operatic work than for symphonic performances, and the piece was in full rehearsal by late January. Shostakovich’s living conditions were difficult: his flat was cold, he couldn’t locate enough music paper for his writing, and the news from Leningrad was depressing.

What the Germans couldn’t gain on the ground by force of arms, they attempted to claim through bombing and famine. More than three million people were stranded in Leningrad during one of Russia’s worst winters, with most municipal facilities either overloaded or destroyed. A shaky supply route that crossed Lake Ladoga enabled a trickle of goods to reach the hungry city. Death was a regular occurrence on the streets of Leningrad, as people died of hunger, exposure, and hostile action. A diarist wrote, ‘Today it is so easy to die.’ ‘You simply start to lose interest, then you lay down and don’t get up again.’

On March 5, 1942, Kuybyshev temporarily became the world’s cultural capital when Shostakovich’s Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony was performed for the first time at the Palace of Culture. Everything about it was bigger than life, from the duration (about eighty minutes) to the colossal orchestra needed. Despite this, the enormous, abstract sculpture created as a symbol of anti-fascism resistance became a cultural icon in the Soviet public imagination. The symphony’s Moscow debut, which took place twenty-four days later, was as poignant and emotional. Even the frantic sound of air raid sirens couldn’t stop the crowd from applauding for twenty minutes after the music had stopped.

Plans were already in the works for the work’s global distribution. The music was treated as a high-priority state document on a trip with cloak-and-dagger elements that seemed fitting. It was duplicated onto 35mm film, put into a tiny tin box, and flown to Tehran, then driven to Cairo, and ultimately flown to the United States. It was broadcast for the first time on June 22, a year after Hitler began Operation Barbarossa. Three of America’s most illustrious conductors — émigrés Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, and Arturo Toscanini – competed for the honor of presenting the Leningrad Symphony in America. The concert debut was given to Russian Koussevitzky, but it was to be followed by a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony.

Leopold Stokowski, an Englishman who rose to fame due to his role in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, had informed NBC executives about the upcoming symphony as early as December. Stokowski was on the NBC stage at the time with another classical superstar, Italian Arturo Toscanini, who was well-known for his resistance to Mussolini’s regime. Stokowski anticipated to do the honors with the Leningrad Symphony radio broadcast because of his foresight in scouting the piece and his own experience of presenting previous Shostakovich works to American listeners. NBC, on the other hand, had different ideas.

The NBC Symphony was established specifically for Toscanini, and despite their difficult relationship with the often-temperamental musician, he was remained their most marketable cultural figure. Stokowski and Toscanini exchanged courteous letters, each asserting their claim to the American premiere, but Toscanini ultimately declined. Toscanini chose to conduct the work’s American premiere after studying the music (‘I was profoundly struck by its beauty and its anti-Fascist implications,’ he wrote).

The performance was set to take place on July 19, 1942. All of these high-art moves occurred at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was aggressively pushing the Soviet Union as America’s new friend. The government and national media pumped out tales highlighting Soviet sacrifices and heroism via books, films, op-ed articles, and other methods, with some even equating life under Stalin to the American way of life (reaching its most effusive expression in the epic Warner Brothers movie Mission to Moscow). The US administration, however, minimized Stalin’s darkly authoritarian character, as well as his previous deceitful disintegration of Poland and imperialistic war against Finland.

Time magazine put composer Shostakovich on its cover, complete with fire helmet, on the week of the NBC premiere of the Leningrad Symphony, with the caption: ‘Amid bombs exploding in Leningrad, he heard the chords of triumph.’ The symphony’s dramatic origin and travels, as well as the creative battle to first play it in the United States, were all detailed in a lengthy piece titled “Shostakovich and the Guns” that appeared in that issue. The composition was dubbed “a musical depiction of Russia at war” by Time.

The omnipresent Ben Grauer began the July 19 radio broadcast by stating that the program was devoted to Russian War Relief. The head of that charity organization then read a telegram from Shostakovich thanking the fund for its services. Grauer returned to tell the story of the symphony’s epic journey to America, concluding with a committee-written ‘radiogram’ from Shostakovich to Toscanini: ‘I am confident that with your consummate inherent talent and superlative skill you will convey to the public of democratic America the concepts I have endeavored to embody in the work the concepts I have endeavored to embody in the work.’ The NBC Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, performed the Leningrad Symphony after a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After it was finished, the Russian War Relief official talked about his country’s fight against the “Hitler hordes” and praised this “symphony composed within range of gunshot,” before the show ended with a war bond plea. The listening audience was subsequently estimated by NBC to be in the twenty million range.

The reaction in the United States was split between music critics (who generally disliked it) and the general public (who mostly did). The composition, according to Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune, “seems to have been composed for the slow-witted, the not-so-musical, and the preoccupied.” The piece was “crafted with the heart’s blood,” according to populist American poet Carl Sandberg, while writer Erskine Caldwell questioned, “Who in hell can fight the country that produced such music!” The Leningrad Symphony more than fulfilled the requirement as a work of propagandist art and music created for the time. During the 1942-43 season, there were a total of 62 performances throughout the United States.

All those glitzy galas paled in comparison to the drab one held in Leningrad. The Soviet fortunes on the Leningrad front had not altered significantly during the period the poem was being sent across the world. The Red Army’s efforts to create a safe passage to resupply the city had failed, and fierce German counterattacks showed no signs of waning. Despite, or maybe because of, the hardships, the decision to bring Shostakovich’s symphony to Leningrad was taken.

This long, lavishly composed piece served as a rallying point for national enthusiasm once again. With the renowned Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra evacuated to the east, a new orchestra had to be cobbled together around the pitifully tiny nucleus of the city’s Radio Orchestra, supplemented by every retired player who could be called. Even back then, there was a demand for conscripted musicians to serve in the front, and some of the required brass players had to be forcefully removed from their battalions. Many of the instrumentalists were so frail as a result of their starvation diets that first rehearsals lasted just fifteen minutes, necessitating the authorization of additional meals. Concerned authorities arranged for a bicycle for the conductor after he passed out from fatigue while walking home after one run-through. Because just a single 252-page conductor’s complete score could be brought in through the blockade, copyists had to labor around the clock to produce the over 2500 pages of individual player parts. Despite all of these tremendous challenges, the symphony was performed in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.

In order to quiet known German gun sites, Soviet artillery blasted known German battery positions immediately before to the performance, according to Karl Eliasberg, who conducted on that occasion. The concert was broadcast via a loudspeaker network across the city, and extra monitors projected the music toward the German lines as a psychological maneuver. While the quality of the playing can only be imagined given the circumstances, the historic event was more about showing resistance than it was about art. ‘People who no longer knew how to weep tears of grief and suffering suddenly wept from pure pleasure,’ wrote a writer in that tattered crowd.

Another audience member said, “One cannot talk about an impact created by the symphony.” ‘It was a mind-blowing experience, not an impression.’ Leningraders would have to endure more than a year of misery before the siege was lifted in early 1944. By that time, perhaps one million of the city’s inhabitants had died.

The Leningrad Symphony by Shostakovich was not the only concert piece written in reaction to World War II events. Composers in America, in particular, contributed by creating big and minor pieces. One of the longest was a nearly hour-long ode to the United States Army Air Forces (forgotten now); among the shortest were Aaron Copland’s still-popular Fanfare for the Common Man and his annual occasion piece, A Lincoln Portrait.

The Cold War’s emotions and shifting preferences in music made it easy for reviewers to dismiss the Leningrad Symphony as a bloated, vulgar work of little enduring significance in the years after the war. Despite this, the work lives on through concert performances and recordings, much like Mark Twain’s obituary. Many now see it not as a combat tune but as an aesthetic statement on tyranny, as a new generation of music writers is discovering layers of significance beyond the circumstances surrounding its creation.

Regardless of post-Cold War evaluations, the Leningrad Symphony is a valiant creative statement created in the furnace of war by one of the twentieth century’s finest symphonists. When contrasted to other military events in the Soviet-German conflict, such as Moscow’s defense, the battle for Stalingrad, and the battle for the Kursk salient, much of what occurred on the Leningrad front is overlooked. Despite this, and despite the fact that the city of Peter and Lenin has been recast as St. Petersburg by the winds of change, the story of Leningrad lives on in large part because the Leningrad Symphony continues to tell the story of its tremendous suffering, sacrifice, and eventual triumph to new audiences. A Soviet artist delivered a symbolic triumph to persuade the West of the Soviet Union’s viability at a time when Soviet weapons couldn’t even provide a symbolic victory. ‘It is, if you want, a polemic against the notion that ‘when the guns boom, the muse is quiet,” Shostakovich said. ‘Here the muses speak along with the guns,’ the composer said in the Time magazine piece, continuing his idea.

Noah Andre Trudeau wrote this essay, which was first published in MHQ’s Spring 2005 issue. Subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History now for more excellent articles!

The leningrad symphony first movement is a piece of classical music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941. It is the opening movement of the Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was one reason the Leningrad Symphony had the performance played on loudspeakers throughout the city?


How long does it take to perform the Leningrad Symphony?

The Leningrad Symphony takes about 30 minutes to perform.

Who composed Leningrad Symphony?

The Leningrad Symphony was composed by Sergei Prokofiev.

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