After the war, the symphony's reputation declined substantially, both due to its public perception as war propaganda as well as the increasingly prevalent view that it was one of Shostakovich’s less accomplished works. In more recent years, scholars have suggested that the work is better interpreted as a depiction of totalitarianism and fascism in general (and more specifically, the brutality of Stalin’s regime). This interpretation is complicated by uncertainty as to when the composer started to write the symphony, with evidence that Shostakovich largely completed the first movement, with its famous “invasion” theme, prior to the beginning of the siege in September 1941.
The symphony is written in the conventional four movements.
The work is written for:Woodwinds:
The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra announced the premiere of the Seventh Symphony for its 1941-1942 season. The fact this announcement was made before the German invasion would seem to confirm the composer's statement in Testimony. Shostakovich did not like talking about what he called "creative plans," preferring to announce his works once they were completed. He did like to say, "I think slowly but I write fast." In practice this meant that Shostakovich usually had a work completed in his head before he began writing it down. The Leningrad Symphony would not have made its announcement without the composer's consent, so Shostakovich likely had a clear idea at that time of what his Seventh Symphony would portray.
Soviet music critic Lev Lebedinsky, a friend of the composer's for many years, confirmed after the dawn of glasnost ("openness") under Mikhail Gorbachev that Shostakovich had conceived the Seventh Symphony before Hitler invaded Russia:
The famous theme in the first movement Shostakovich had first as the Stalin theme (which close friends of the composer knew). Right after the war started, the composer called it the anti-Hitler theme. Later Shostakovich referred to that "German" theme as the "theme of evil," which was absolutely true, since the theme was just as much anti-Hitler as it was anti-Stalin, even though the world music community fixed on only the first of the two definitions.
Another important witness was the daughter-in-law of Maxim Litvinov, the man who served as Soviet foreign minister before the war, then was dismissed by Stalin. She heard Shostakovich play the Seventh Symphony on the piano in a private home during the war. The guests later discussed the music:
And then Shostakovich said meditatively: of course, it's about fascism, but music, real music is never literally tied to a theme. Fascism is not simply National Socialism, and this is music about terror, slavery, and oppression of the spirit. Later, when Shostakovich got used to me and came to trust me, he said openly that the Seventh (and the Fifth as well) was not only about fascism but about our country and generally about all tyranny and totalitarianism.
While Shostakovich could speak like this only in a very narrow circle of friends, it did not stop him from hinting to the Soviet Press about a hidden agenda for the Seventh Symphony. He insisted, for instance, that the "central place" of the first movement was not the "invasion section" (the part journalists usually asked about first). Rather, the movement's core was the tragic music which followed the invasion section, which the composer described as "a funeral march or, rather, a requiem." He continued, "After the requiem comes an even more tragic episode. I do not know how to characterize that music. Perhaps it is a mother's tears or even the feeling that the sorrow is so great that there are no more tears left.
Shostakovich's plan was for a single-movement symphony, including a chorus and a requiem-like passage for a vocal soloist, with a text taken from the Psalms of David. With the help of his best friend, critic Ivan Sollertinsky, who was knowledgeable about the Bible, he selected excerpts from the Ninth Psalm. The idea of individual suffering became interwoven in Shostakovich's mind with the Lord God's vengeance for the taking of innocent blood (Verse 12, New King James Version). The theme not only conveyed his outrage over Stalin's oppression,, but also may have inspired him to write the Seventh Symphony in the first place. "I began writing it having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that, but the Psalms were the impetus," the composer said. "David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, He doesn't forget the cries of victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated."
A public performance of a work with such a text would have been impossible before the German invasion. Now it was feasible, at least in theory, with the reference to "blood" applied at least officially to Hitler. With Stalin appealing to the Soviets' patriotic and religious sentiments, the authorities werte no longer suppressing Orthodox themes or images. Yet for all the importance he played on them, Shostakovich may have been right in writing the symphony without a text, in view of the censorship that would eventually be reimposed.
While the word "invasion" was used by commentators in numerous articles and reviews, Shostakovich never used it to describe the episode or theme. He tried to evade the point in his author's note for the premiere. "I did not set myself the goal of a naturalistic depiction of military action (the roar of planes, the crash of tanks, cannon fire). I did not compose so-called battle music. I wanted to convey the context of grim events. The only "grim events" which would be depicted in 1941 by a Soviet author other than the war would be the mass purges preceding it.
The composer expounded much later on what he meant:
Even before the war, there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under the blanket, so no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. It suffocated me, too. I had to write about it, I felt it was my responsibility, my duty. I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered. I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it.
One very important point was that when Hitler attacked Russia, he did so with his entire military might. Practically everyone who lived through it remembered the event as an instantaneous shock of tremendous power. None of this comes out in the symphony. The "invasion" theme begins very softly in the strings, pianissimo. It eventually becomes a howling monster, but only gradually. If this music portrays an invasion, it is not depicting a sudden one. It is an incremental takeover, one which could easily seem to come from within.
Neither does the theme itself sound threatening, at least at first. For its latter half, Shostakovich quotes Graf Danilo's entrance song, "Da geh' ich zu Maxim," from Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow. The Merry Widow was also Hitler's favorite operette, which played well with Soviet propagandists writing about the symphony.) A version of this song may have already existed in Russia. Set to the words, "I'll go and see Maxim," it was repoortedly sung jokingly in the Shostakovich household to the composer's son. Arthur Lourié called the theme a "trite, intentionally silly motif," adding, "This tune can be whistled by any Soviet man on the street.... (Coincidentally, Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky echoed Lourié when he called it a generalized image of spreading stupidity and triteness. Added to this musical quotation was a prominent sequence of six descending notes in the seventh of the theme's 22 bars—a sequence which bears a passing resemblance to the third bar of Deutschland Über Alles.
Ian MacDonald maintains that the simplest explanation for Shostakovkch using these two quotations, which could be heard interchangeably as Russian or German, is that they allow the march, "like the rest of the symphony, [to function as] two things at once: superficially an image of the Nazi invasion; more fundamentally a satirical picture of Stalinist society in the thirties. A third, more personal quotation adds additional subtext. In the opening half of the march, Shostakovich inserts a theme from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, the work for which the composer suffered his first official denunciation in 1936. The quotation itself was used in passages of the libretto that describe the way we suffer from tyranny.
Shostakovich saves what some would call his boldest stroke with the "invasion" theme for a point near the episode's climax. With the music at tremendous volume and following a corsurrating six-bar trill across most of the woodwind section, the composer modulates the march into C-sharp minor. The six-note descending figure that sounded from Deutschland Über Alles suddenly reveals itself as the six descending notes from the "motto" or "fate" theme of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. This is a delayed revelation along the lines of Richard Strauss's later use of the Eroica Symphony in his Metamorphosen.
Tchaikovsky actually derived his "fate" theme from a passage in Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar—significantly, a passage in the libretto using the words "turn not into sorrow." Shostakovich heightens its appearance by quoting it not in its initial tonality but in the key of its heroic triumph at the symphony's conclusion. This gesture shows the march, at the peak of hysteria, as Russian rather than German. It also shows Shostakovich has controlled the march's ambiguity all along.
On 2 September, the day the Germans began bombarding the city, Shostakovich began the second movement. Working at high intensity in between sprints to the nearest bomb shelter, he completed it within two weeks. Within hours he accepted a request to speak on Radio Leningrad to address the city. Adapting a matter-of-fact tone, he attempted to assure his fellow Leningraders that for him it was business as usual:
An hour ago I finished the score of two movements of a large symphonic composition. If I succeed in carrying it off, if I manage to complete the third and fourth movements, then perhaps I'll be able to call it my Seventh Symphony. Why am I telling you this? So that the radio listeners who are listening to me now will know that life in our city is proceeding normally.
That evening he played what he had written so far to a small group of Leningrad musicians. After Shostakovich finished the first movement, there was a long silence. An airraid warning sounded. No one moved. Everyone wanted to hear the piece again. The composer excused himself to take his family to the nearest air-raid shelter. When he returned, he played that movement then the following one for his guests. Their reaction encouraged him to start that night on the adagio. He completed this movement 29 September in the city. Shostakovich and his family were then evacuated to Moscow on 1 October 1941. They moved to Kuibyshev (now Samara) on 22 October, where the symphony was finally completed.
The microfilmed score was flown to Teheran and travelled to the West in April 1942. The symphony received its broadcast première in Europe by Henry Wood and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 22 June 1942 in London, and concert première at a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The première in North America took place in New York on 19 July 1942, by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini in a studio concert broadcast nationwide on radio. This performance was eventually released on CD by RCA Victor. Toscanini sent the composer a copy of his recording. Shostakovich hated it. He claimed "hearing it made me angry. Everything is wrong. The spirit and the character and the tempos. It's a lousy, sloppy hack job." Shostakovich even fired off an angry letter to the conductor. Ironically, long after the event Shostakovich was elected a member of the Arturo Toscanini Society and started receiving records on a regular basis.
Much had to be done before the Leningrad première could take place. The Leningrad Radio Orchestra under Karl Eliasberg was the only remaining symphonic ensemble. The orchestra had survived—barely—but it had not been playing and musical broadcasts had ceased. Music was not considered a priority by Party officials. Only political appeals were broadcast. Even then, there were hours of silence because of the lack of agitators. As for the city itself, Leningrad surrounded by the Nazis had become a living hell, with eyewitness reports of people who had died of cold and starvation lying in doorways in stairwells. "They lay there because people dropped them there, the way newborn infants used to be left. Janitors swept them away in the morning like rubbish. Funerals, graves, coffins were long forgotten. It was a flood of death that could not be managed. Entire families vanished, entire apartments with their collective families. Houses, streets and neighborhoods vanished.
The official hiatus on musical broadcasts had to end before the symphony could be performed. This happened quickly, with a complete about-face by Party authorities. Next was reforming the orchestra. Only 15 members were still available; the others had either starved to death or left to fight the enemy. Posters went up, requesting all Leningrad musicians to report to the Radio Committee. Efforts were also made to seek out those musicians who could not come. "My God, how thin many of them were," one of the organizers of the performance remembered. "How those people livened up when we started to ferret them out of their dark apartments. We were moved to tears when they brought out their concert clothes, their violins and cellos and flutes, and rehearsals began under the icy canopy of the studio." Orchestral players were given additional rations.
Before they tackled Shostakovich's work, Eliasberg had the players go through pieces from the standard repertoire—Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov—which they also performed for broadcast. Because the city was still blockaded at the time, the score was flown by night in early July for rehearsal. A team of copyists worked for days to prepare the parts despite shortages of materials. At rehearsal, some musicians protested, not wanting to waste their little strength on an intricate and not very accessible work. Eliasberg threatened to hold back the additional rations, quelling any dissent.
The concert was given 9 August 1942. Whether this date was chosen intentionally, it was the day Hitler had chosen previously to celebrate the fall of Lenningrad with a lavish banquet at the Astoria Hotel. Loudspeakers broadcast the performance throughout the city as well as to the German forces in a move of psychological warfare. The Soviet commander of the Leningrad front, General Govorov, ordered a bombardment of German artillery positions in advance to ensure their silence during the performance of the symphony; a special operation, code-named "Squall," was executed for precisely this purpose. Three thousand high-caliber shells were lobbed onto the enemy.
Tolstoy's actions became instrumental in the life of the Seventh. Stalin read Pravda closely and he generally trusted Tolstoy's comments. He remained highly suspicious of spontaneous outpourings of mass enthusiasm both before and after the war, seeing them as veiled instances of oppositionist feelings. However, he also realized squelching such mass expressions in wartime could be unwise, and he had Tolstoy's comments to give them credence in the case of the Seventh Symphony. Tolstoy's interpretation of the Seventh, in fact, lined up with Stalin's stated support of nationalism and patriotism. At least as important was that without the help of the United States and Great Britain, the Soviet Union would not overcome Nazi Germany. The Soviets had been seen not long ago in the Western press as godless villains and barbarians. Now the Americans and British had to believe that the Soviet Union was helping protect the values those countries cherished from fascism for the Soviets to continue receiving those countries' support.
Stalin therefore took the approach of, "If you can't beat them, join them," when it came to the Seventh Symphony, approving a propaganda campaign centered around the work. It was performed and broadcast all over the Soviet Union. Magazines and newspapers continued printing stories about it. The piece continued having enormous success. People still wept at concerts. They often rose from their seats during the finale and applauded thunderously afterwards. The difference now was that they were now aiding a potent propaganda campaign.
Shostakovich's contemporaries were dismayed, even angered by its lack of subtlety, crudity, and overblown dramatics. Virgil Thomson wrote that, "It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted," adding that if Shostakovich continued writing in this manner, it might "eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer. Sergei Rachmaninoff's only comment after hearing the American premiere on the radio was a grim "Well, and now let's have some tea. Béla Bartók, frustrated with the popularity of the piece, parodies the ostinato from the “invasion” theme of the first movement of the symphony in the fourth movement, Intermezzo interotto, of his Concerto for Orchestra (see Quotations and Allusions below).
Disdainful remarks about the symphony being nothing more than a bombastic accompaniment for a bad war movie were voiced immediately after the London and New York premieres. However, in the cultural and political hear of the period, they had no effect. The American public-relations machine had joined the Soviet propaganda arm in portraying the Seventh as a symbol of cooperation and spiritual unity of both peoples in their fight against the Nazis.
The Seventh Symphony was actually a convenient target from the start for Western critics. It was considered a strange, ungainly hybrid of Mahler and Stravinsky—too long, too broad-gestured in narrative and overly emotional in tone. Shostakovich placed the work's emphasis on the effect of musical images rather than on symphonic coherence. Those images—stylized fanfares, march rhythms, ostinati, folkloric themes and pastoral episodes—could easily be considered models of socialist realism. Because of his emphasis on these images, Shostakovich can be said to have allowed the work's message to outweigh its craftsmanship. For all these reasons, the music was considered both naïve and calculated in the West.
Soviet audiences did not come to the music with the same expectations as Western listeners. What mattered to Soviet listeners was the message and the serious of its moral content. The Seventh maintained its position with that audience because its content was so momentous. Nevertheless, as early as 1943 Soviet critics claimed the "exultation" of the Seventh's finale was unconvincing, pointing out that the part of the symphony they found most effective—the march in the opening movement—represented not the defending Red Army but the Nazi invaders. They believed that Shostakovich's pessimism had short-circuited what might have otherwise been a masterpiece in the vein of the 1812 Overture. The tragic mood of Shostakovich's next symphony, the Eighth, intensified the critical discord. Later, negative views from the West prejudiced the thinking of the Soviet elite toward the Seventh.
Two things happened. First was the composer's son Maxim's view on the accuracy of Testimony. He initially stated to the Sunday Times, after his defection to the West in 1981, that it was a book "about my father, not by him,. Later, though, he reversed his position. In a BBC television interview with composer Michael Berkeley on 27 September 1986, Maxim admitted, "It's true. It's accurate.... The basis of the book is correct. Second, with the dawning of glasnost, those who were still alive and had known Shostakovich when he had written the Leningrad Symphony could now share their own stories with impunity (see "Music about terror" above). By doing so, they helped corroborate what had appeared in Testimony, allowing the West to reevaluate the symphony in light of their statements.