Shostakovich, Stalin, and the Power of Art

I just finished reading a riveting piece of young adult non-fiction, and although my blog normally focuses on books accessible to those 12 and under (not that they are not valuable to those 12 and older!), I want to draw your attention to it.

Symphony for the City of the Dead cover imageSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press

It’s an immensely powerful book taking place during an era of history surprisingly under-covered in young people’s literature, Stalin-era Soviet Union. The plot revolves around one of the Soviet Union’s most famous composers, Shostakovich, and the dire circumstances that led to his composing his Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad Symphony.

If this does not seem like a spell-binding topic to you, take a cue from this excerpt from Anderson’s prologue:

This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare…

Lev A. Russov's The Leningrad Symphony Conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.

[A]t its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings…how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you — you are not alone.

Dmitri ShostakovichYou will come away from the book having learned an extraordinary amount about Shostakovich himself, an immensely gifted man who was presented with unthinkably wrenching choices and consequences, who lived through unspeakable darkness, endured threats, betrayals, and losses, yet persevered with an artistic vision that moved the world.

You will also have a hideously uncomfortable front-row seat to the raw, insane cruelty of Josef Stalin unleashed upon the Soviet citizens, as well as the sickness of Adolf Stalin-HitlerHitler, unleashed upon these very same people. Torture, black misery, death, cannibalism — the full force of man’s inhumanity to man is painted in stark, unflinching strokes. It is not a book for young readers, but for those old enough to stomach these realities, it is a necessary confrontation with the brutality of untempered power.

Finally, and perhaps most inspiringly, you will see a curtain drawn back on the immense power of art — in this case, music — to touch human souls, to lift broken people out of seemingly impossible darkness, to turn humiliation and despair to dignity and hope. There’s a lot to reflect on here, to think about what this means for our world, for ourselves as creative persons, and for our children if the arts are slighted in their education.

A facsimile of the Seventh Symphony manuscript.

A facsimile of the Seventh Symphony manuscript.

I highly recommend this for ages 15 through adult. Those with a background in music history or the arts, those with an interest in the Soviet Union, WWII, or Stalin — you will be especially rewarded. Copious source notes, a lengthy bibliography, and a number of historical photos are included.