A Brilliant Biography That’s Required Reading for Both Teens and Adults
Symphony for the City of the Dead
by M.T. Anderson
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal
In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.
This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a masterwork thrillingly told and impeccably researched by National Book Award–winning author M. T. Anderson.
Bombs exploding in the streets, buildings crumbling to dust, fires raging like tempests through the night, nerve-shattering bursts of anti-aircraft fire, the screams of the wounded, the weeping of the bereaved, the cries of frightened children, the emaciated faces and skeletal bodies, the frozen corpses lying untended on the sidewalks…. In such an environment, how can you think of anything other than where your next meal is coming from, or who among your friends and family will be the next to die? How can you feel any emotions other than fear and hatred when your leaders arrest and torture their citizens, seemingly on a whim? How can you concentrate on living knowing that if the invading enemy that has vowed to obliterate you doesn’t, your own country could kill you for a single misspoken word or an unapproved melody? Yet Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, under the constant threat of imprisonment, contending with starvation, sleeplessness, and all the terrors of war, death ever on his doorstep, summoned hope, love, and his talent, and wrote symphonies — symphonies! And it is his seventh, the Leningrad, written for the city he loved as it lay dying, which won the hearts of the world and the gratitude of his fellow countrymen, that is the focus of this superb book.
If the word Kafkaesque ever applied to anything, it applies to Stalinist Russia. Laws were mutable, as was justice, people fell out of favor overnight, and like a farcical What’s Hot, What’s Not list, what you did right yesterday — what you said, what you thought, the person you associated with — could get you arrested or worse the following day. For Shostakovich this meant that he and the music he created, both praised by leadership at the highest level, would later be condemned by those same leaders as Stalin dictated a nation’s tastes.
M.T. Anderson tells the story of a gifted composer under constant scrutiny and immense, unrelenting pressure, and along the way, chronicles the rise of two despicable murderers, Hitler and Stalin, the failures of Communism, and the life or death struggle of a starving population of millions. Thankfully, Anderson conveys the bloodiness of war and the atrocities of political oppression without stooping to sensationalism. Understanding that a simple statement of fact carries all the weight necessary to move his reader, he allows acts of evil to speak for themselves, unembellished by gory descriptions. His research, the depth and quality of which shows on every page, is well-supported by end notes and a comprehensive bibliography. Sifting through the data for the truth was no easy task; much of the historical record from those days was created under the watchful eye of Stalin’s secret police, and thus must be checked and cross-checked against other sources, themselves not always reliable. The author’s skills as a researcher, so essential to a work of this kind, are to be applauded.
Symphony for the City of the Dead is ostensibly a book for young adults, but in keeping with the author’s philosophy — “It’s insulting to believe that teens should have a different kind of book than an adult should,” he once told the Washington Post. — Anderson minces no words, glosses over nothing, and refuses to dumb down his vocabulary. His writing is always readable and consistently rises above the ordinary. (Describing the multi-front Nazi assault: “The three prongs of Operation Barbarossa stuck deep in Russia’s flesh like the tines of a devil’s pitchfork.”) Adults, too, will find the book absorbing and enlightening.
Anderson has written a classic biography of a man, of a city, and of a piece of music, each trapped between the crushing iron grips of two of history’s cruelest tyrants. It is a horrifying and depressing tale, but ultimately is as inspiring as the final, triumphant blast of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
— Jennifer Michelle
5 of 5 Hearts. A Brilliant Biography That’s Required Reading for Both Teens and Adults.
There is no better reading experience than immersing oneself in a biography or history in which the subject is vividly brought to life before one’s eyes. With an emotionally stirring and intellectually gripping story told through prose as elegant and fluid as that of a well-written novel, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a significant contribution to both genres. It should bring more accolades to National Book Award winner and multiple Printz Award honoree M.T. Anderson, and, more importantly, introduce to a new generation Dmitri Shostakovich, his Seventh Symphony, and the sufferings and courage of the people of WWII Leningrad.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Goodman Media and Candlewick Press for providing me a copy of this title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”