Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

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

“There is no way to write a biography of Shostakovich without relying on hearsay and relaying the memories of people who have many private reasons to fabricate, mislead and revise.” (p.141)

So, this biography of Shostakovich, the Russian composer who immortalized the siege of Leningrad during World War II in his Seventh Symphony, is sprinkled throughout with “perhaps” and “supposedly” and “it is not clear whether” and many, many questions. I was at first a little frustrated by all the “weasel words” with which author M.T. Anderson hedges his sentences and declarations and with all of the open-ended questions with which he ends many of his paragraphs and chapters, but I began to see these uncertainties and essays at truth as (perhaps) metaphorical. After all, Anderson is writing about the events of a composer’s life, many of which are shrouded in Communist propaganda and lies or in the half-truths of people who were trying to live under Communist oppression. But he’s also writing about Shostakovich’s music, which is also vague and uncertain and shrouded, as various experts disagree about the music’s message and meaning. So there are questions, and Anderson asks the right ones while also laying out the facts when those are available in a readable narrative form.

I don’t exactly see why this book is being marketed as a young adult book, unless it’s maybe because the author has written many fiction books for children and young adults. While it’s not a scholarly, academic biography, it is certainly well researched and documented and perfectly suited for adult readers. In fact, unless a person, young or old, is particularly interested in the Soviet Union during World War II or in Shostakovich’s music or twentieth century classical music in general, I doubt this book is going to hold much appeal. Conversely, if any of those interests are there, young and old will find it fascinating. So why is it a Young Adult book? I have no idea.

The details about the siege of Leningrad, taken partly from NKVD archives and records, are harrowing and disturbing (starvation, cannibalism, frozen and unburied bodies, etc.), so it’s not a book for children. The main text of the book is 379 pages and written in a literary, almost lyrical style, so I doubt anyone younger than fifteen or sixteen is going to attempt it anyway. I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but it turns out that I knew very little, aside from the bare facts, about the siege of Leningrad, and I had never heard of Shostakovich’s Leningrad (Seventh) Symphony, not being a music aficionado or a student of classical Russian music.

I was inspired by the book to listen to the Leningrad Symphony, a undertaking in itself since the symphony in four movements is almost an hour and half long. I’ll embed the youtube version that I listened to, but I’m sure that I got more out of it after having read all the historical background in Mr. Anderson’s book. I suggest, for those of you who, like me, are not musically educated, that you read the book first and then listen to the symphony.

Good book, but disturbing. Good music, but also disturbing, especially the relentless march in the first movement.

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