Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Conductor

I just finished this wonderful book. Wow! It really evoked the feeling of deprivation that the people of Leningrad faced in 1941-42 as the Nazi's approached. Here is  the write-up from the author's own website
In June 1941, breaking the non-aggression pact with Russia, Nazi troops march on Leningrad and surround it. Hitler’s plan is to shell, bomb, and starve the city into submission. Most of the cultural elite are evacuated early in the siege, but Shostakovich, one of Russia’s most famous composers, stays on to defend his city, digging ditches and fire-watching. At night he composes a new work.
But eventually Shostakovich and his family are forced to evacuate, while Karl Eliasberg – the shy and difficult conductor of the second-rate Radio Orchestra – and his musicians are left behind to suffer an almost unendurable winter. When the finished score of Shostakovich’s work is flown over enemy lines back into the city, Eliasberg and his orchestra are ordered to regroup. Starving and weak, they face the monumental task of rehearsing and performing the Leningrad Symphony.
Against all odds, their historic performance took place in August 1942, relayed by loudspeakers to the front lines as proof that Leningrad would never surrender.

Quigley says, ‘I’ve always been interested in Shostakovich and his music. Creating art is hard enough at any time, let alone coping with a repressive Soviet regime and then a war. The historic performance of the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony caught my imagination. In one way it’s a very Russian story – the resilience, determination, and passion for art – but it also has a universal message. It shows that music can touch people’s hearts and sustain them through the darkest of times.’

The writing is so compelling that I could hardly put the book down, in spite of the fact that the conditions in Leningrad were so appalling. Quigley also made very real, for me, the intensity that true musicians live with: the music is always with them and the rest of life is almost an aside.

Another recent read for the book club is Stephen Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, set during those awful years when Sarajevo was under siege and living conditions there were, similarly to Leningrad, abominable. Both books underline the way in which music is a common language, helping us, even if only for a few brief moments, to forget our troubles. And, for a city under siege, music is the ultimate upraised finger in the face of the enemy.