WAR COMPOSERS: Dmitri Shostakovich

3 mins read
25 September 1906 – 9 August 1975
Dmitri Shostakovich 25 September 1906 9 August 1975

Dmitri Shostakovich ranks as one of the most important Russian composers of the 20th century. He lived his whole life under Soviet rule, and had a complex relationship with its strict censorship and approach to the arts. Shostakovich was a gifted pianist and composer, though he was more interested in the contemporary styles of his fellow Russians, such as Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, than in the music of the 19th century.

The son of an engineer, he showed early talent for music and entered the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919, which was operating even in the aftermath of the revolution. He showed little interest in supporting state ideology, something that caused problems for him later in life.

He embarked on a career in music, initially gaining support from the authorities, but he fell out of favour with the government in 1936, after the staging of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin had attended the performance and found it distasteful.

The work was denounced, and Shostakovich was forced to keep his head down, composing less controversial music. He managed to survive the Great Purge, which began in the same year, but many of his friends were killed or imprisoned in show trials designed to destroy all that was left of the revolutionary mass movement of 1917.

Mother Russia summons her children to the defence of the homeland during the Second World War.
Mother Russia summons her children to the defence of the homeland during the Second World War.


He regained favour with his Symphony No.5, and took a teaching post at the Leningrad Conservatoire in 1937. It was in that city that he would write his celebrated Symphony No.7, hailed as a monument to the Russian spirit in resisting the German invasion.

In September 1941, German forces severed rail connections to Leningrad; the longest siege of the Second World War then began. Shostakovich had already begun work on a new symphony in July (some accounts say earlier), but he was now determined to create a work that would rouse the people to resistance. He had completed three of four movements by the end of September, when he and his family were evacuated to Moscow, and then to Samara, where he was able to finish the work in December.

Controversial Composition

There is still controversy about the intended meaning behind Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7. He had begun work on it before the siege, but this could have been in response to the German military advance. The official Soviet position was that the symphony was written in support of the state and to proclaim the loyalty and valour of the Russian people.

Other evidence suggests that the first movement implied criticism of Soviet repression, as well as of other kinds of tyranny, but that it was repurposed once the siege began. The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky noted during the glasnost period under Gorbachev that Shostakovich had indeed begun work on the symphony before the German invasion. He said:

The famous theme in the first movement Shostakovich had first as the Stalin theme… 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.

Clearly, Shostakovich could not discuss such sentiments in public, but one initial impetus for the work may have been a quiet reaction to the purges of 1936.

Dubbed the ‘Leningrad Symphony’, it lasted well over an hour, and was filled with themes honouring Russian heroism. Shostakovich dedicated it to the city, and Pravda immediately hailed it as a work celebrating Soviet values. Performances and broadcasts were arranged to boost morale, and it received ovations and rapturous applause; even Stalin approved.


Symphony No.7 became a national symbol of resistance to the German invasion, and the Soviets were eager to export it to the Allies. In a scenario from a spy movie, the score was copied onto film, flown to Tehran, transported by car to Cairo, and then flown westwards, where it was performed in both Britain and America in 1942.

The arrival of such a monumental work was well timed for President Roosevelt, whose administration was eager to portray the Soviets as American allies in the struggle against the Nazis, while ignoring Stalin’s own dictatorship.

Red Army infantry storm
forwards across a German trench
during the Siege of Leningrad.
Red Army infantry storm forwards across a German trench during the Siege of Leningrad.

The surviving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, with the help of military musicians to make up the gaps, performed the symphony in Leningrad itself on 9 August 1942. It was broadcast on loudspeakers to the besieging German forces as an act of defiance.

The effect on the people, starving and dying, was tremendous. It received an ovation and roused Leningrad’s remaining citizens to continue their resistance. The conductor, Karl Eliasberg, later remarked that, ‘in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine’.

The siege was not lifted until 1944, after a significant pushback against it in 1943. By its end, as many as a million Leningraders had died. But the performance was long remembered as a turning-point in the struggle.

This is an article from the July 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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