Yesterday’s Music History Monday postmarked the 80th anniversary of the completion of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 on December 27, 1941. The utterly cinematic first movement of the symphony depicts a magnificent and lyric “landscape” gutted by a brutal invasion theme that grows from nothing to a vicious, overpowering, overwhelming musical malignancy. Given current events at the time Shostakovich composed that movement – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – it is natural to assume that the “invasion theme” (as it became known) is a depiction of the encroaching Nazi horde. However, in private, Shostakovich told those he trusted that the symphony – and the theme with it – had been conceived before the German invasion, which began on June 22, 1941:
“The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme.
Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism; any form is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so was Stalin.
I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began.
The war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible prewar years. Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”
These are powerful, even devastating words. And Shostakovich’s Symphonies No. 7 (of 1941) and No. 8 (of 1943) are powerful, expressively devastating works. That’s because in wartime, Soviet artists were permitted a degree of expressive freedom they would never have been allowed during peacetime.
The Soviet writer, revolutionary, journalist, and historian Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg (1891-1967) explains why this was so:
“You could depict grief and destruction for the fault lay with foreigners, the Germans. In peacetime unclouded optimism was required of art; [in peacetime], Shostakovich’s ‘requiem’ Symphonies [Nos. Seven and Eight] would have been subjected to annihilating criticism. Ironically, the war rescued Shostakovich; but the war could not continue forever.”
As is the case with Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, music written in response to war – whether during or after a war – will typically demonstrate an extreme and typically very dark expressive palette. In the twentieth century, such works as Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1922); Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945); Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947); Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1961); Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962); George Crumb’s Black Angels (1971); and Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (of 1976) deal primarily with the violence, ruin, and grief wrought by war, to devastating expressive effect.
But there are other possible artistic “reactions” to war, and provided that you’re on the winning side, among them are hope, relief, celebration, and even triumphalism (“excessive exultation over one’s success or achievements”).
Case in point for all the above: Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.…Become a Patron!