April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Strike Up the Band | M.T. Anderson and the Story Behind the Leningrad Symphony

mt_andersonA new book from National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson is always sure to catch teens’ (and reviewers’) attention. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015), his first work of narrative nonfiction, is no exception. It is a thoroughly researched and brilliantly multilayered look at the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his creative influences and challenges with the Stalin regime, and the devastating Siege of Leningrad. The book is as compelling as any spy thriller, as horrific as a zombie apocalypse, and as moving as a heartbreaking novel. Incredibly, it’s all true. And throughout it all, Anderson, a consummate storyteller, documents the power of music to change lives and make history.

I’m happy to say that Anderson will be a part of this year’s SummerTeen, a free virtual conference taking place on August 13. He will be talking more about Symphony for the City of the Dead as part of a panel moderated by Marc Aronson called “The New Age of YA Nonfiction,” along with Paula Ayer and Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Check out the entire program and register today.

When did you first hear the Leningrad Symphony? When did you realize that you needed to tell the story behind its creation?

For years, I had heard three stories about the symphony repeated over and over again in program notes and CD booklets: First, that Shostakovich wrote most of it inside the besieged city itself; second, that a performance of it had taken place in the city under incredibly harsh conditions—the night of the performance, for example, the Red Army bombed the Germans on the opposite side of the city to draw fire away from the concert hall—and third, that the piece had been reduced onto microfilm and brought out of the Soviet Union via the Middle East and North Africa, delivered to the United States, and broadcast here to generate interest in the Russian cause. These are old classical music chestnuts. But about six or seven years ago, I read another sketch of some of these events and this time, something clicked. I realized that it would make a powerful story for teens as well as adults. I remembered my own teenage love of Shostakovich’s music. (His symphonies and chamber music are very passionate, dramatic, [and] dark. And so are a lot of teens.) I gradually started to do reading on the topic and feel my way toward a book.

This work brilliantly combines at least three compelling stories into one—the Shostakovich biography, the history of the city (and by extension the Russian people) in the first half of the 20th century, and the power of music (not only as a political statement or a rallying cry, but also as a way to honor and eulogize his countrymen and capture the attention of the world). Did you set out to write such an ambitious volume or did it just evolve organically?

I didn’t realize how ambitious it was going to be. I thought I’d be essentially digesting things other people had written. Then I discovered, for example, that no one had ever really looked into the symphony’s microfilm voyage. No one really knew who’d arranged it or how it had come about. So it became a much larger and more complicated project as I tracked down sources both here and in the state archives in Moscow, documents that had been left to languish during the Cold War. Eventually, I wrote an academic paper on the microfilm transfer.

I should also mention how grateful this project made me for librarians’ services—and for the recent advances in search engine technology. This is a project where the first clues often were served up by obscure hits and hints online—but which often led to yellowing, archived documents in physical form sitting in boxes, available only at one site in the world. The bridge between the virtual and the physical was often the painstaking work librarians and archivists had done to catalogue their special collections. So, thank you! Kisses and vodka all round!

SymphonyCityDeadYou’ve always done plenty of research, whether working on your historical novels or picture books. Did you have any trepidation about tackling a strictly nonfiction work?

At first, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I found the process fascinating, life-changing. There was so much I didn’t know about the Soviet Union, about its literature and music, about the Second World War. I was constantly amazed and aghast at what I learned. For example: The number of Soviet citizens who died in the defense of Leningrad and its surroundings is higher than the number of Americans who have died in all wars since 1775. Roughly half of the total casualties in the Second World War were Soviet. Coming across facts like this, I felt even more passionate about the project. I thought: This is something we all have to understand.

The book is narrative nonfiction at its best, blending meticulous research and scholarship with gripping storytelling that keeps the text lively and immediate for readers. Was it difficult to establish the proper tone to reflect the seriousness of the subject matter and meet the information needs of teen readers?

It was occasionally a challenge to convey that information—though it was made easier [because] the history itself is so dramatic. In terms of voice, I also occasionally tried to catch some of the characteristic tone used in many of Shostakovich’s letters and in the writing of the authors he admired or knew (Mikhail Zoshchenko, Viktor Shklovsky, Daniil Kharms, Ilf and Petrov, Bulgakov, and even the 19th-century Gogol)—a grim absurdism that came to pervade the Soviet intelligentsia in this period. They were living in a grotesque and violent world; their words and music reflect that. And yet, they also reflect the yearning for something better, something nobler.

You ask in your author’s note, “How do we reconstruct the story of someone who lived in a period in which everyone had an excuse to lie, evade, accuse, or keep silent?” Did you know going in how elusive or contradictory the “facts” would be?

Yes, I knew this would be a challenge. For decades, there has been a violent debate about the authenticity of Shostakovich’s supposed memoirs, for example. But that’s part of the drama of the story. Totalitarianism destroys truth— that’s how dictatorships survive. And yet, Shostakovich strived to make his music into another kind of truth, a truth beyond words.

I made this doubt a part of the story, because I feel that kids need to see how history is actually constructed. History isn’t just sitting there under a tarp, waiting to be discovered. It’s assembled, each and every time we tell it. That’s incredibly important for us all to remember.

How has recent scholarship and the newly available documents and statements changed the debate about the symphony and its meaning?

Well, there has long been a conspiracy theory that Shostakovich didn’t intend the “Leningrad” Symphony to be about the approach of the German Wehrmacht at all, but rather to be about Stalin’s rise to power (as some of his other music is probably implicitly, or even explicitly, a demonstration of his hatred for a regime which betrayed, imprisoned, and executed friends and family members). This is part of the drama of decoding I discuss in the book. Current scholarship suggests that there’s a more interesting and complicated story than suggesting it’s just supposed to be a simple cartoon of one dictator or the other.

Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (Random, 2014) perfectly sets the stage for Symphony for the City of the Dead, which begins in 1906 with Shostakovich’s birth. Besides checking out a recording of the Seventh Symphony, Op. 60, what book do you recommend we look for as a follow-up read?

I thought Candy’s book was wonderful! I’m not sure what would follow on after you read hers and mine. I guess chronologically, we need a book about Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table. Steve Sheinkin, get right on it!

Or, if you don’t want to wait for a best-seller by Steve called BREZHNEV!, a lot of people have been telling me I absolutely need to read Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose (Holt, 2011). That’s probably where I’m going to go next.

I know there are publishing challenges when it comes to including music, but this book screams for the opportunity, if not with the print version at least with the ebook or audio editions. Is it just prohibitively expensive to do so? Is there a particular recording that you are particularly fond of?

We’re [working on] the audiobook version right now, and we hope to have some brief musical examples. Generally, if you’re looking for a blanket recommendation for Shostakovich’s symphonies, I’d point to some wonderful recordings done recently by a young conductor named Vasily Petrenko. Not only are they full of subtle and impassioned music-making—they’re available to stream via the Naxos Music Library, which several of my local library systems subscribe to. (If yours doesn’t subscribe, these recordings are also on Spotify and similar services.) Shostakovich’s symphonies are powerful music, deeply human and full of terror, love, and longing, and I hope this book will convince readers to explore them.

Does the symphony still enjoy widespread popularity in Russia and abroad? Can you see Symphony for the City of the Dead ever being translated into Russian?

That would be great! The “Leningrad” Symphony still holds a very important place in Russian culture. A few months ago, I mentioned to a Russian cabbie in Boston that I was working on a book about Shostakovich. He immediately, without prompting, started belting out the “invasion” theme of the “Leningrad” Symphony. It has been an amazing lesson for me, learning how deeply important this music was for generations of Soviet citizens. And this is what this book became for me: a story about the power of music to change a nation, to change history, to change the world.



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Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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