Art Under Siege: The Leningrad Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich and 'The Conductor'

Joseph Skelton, one of the actors in the company performing The Conductor, explains the history and journey behind the concert-play.

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In 1942, conductor Karl Eliasberg wrote in his log:

"Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working."

Left in the devastation of the Leningrad Siege, the music stopped. Starvation gnawed at the city. Surrounded by the Nazis for over two years, the siege would claim the lives of more than one million men, women, and children.

Some months after Eliasberg wrote this entry, a plane carrying supplies from Kuybyshev airlifted a composer's 252-page score into Leningrad. It was the seventh symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich; his 'Leningrad Symphony'.

The first rehearsal in March 1942 was intended to be three hours long, but had to be stopped after 15 minutes because the 30 musicians present were too weak to play their instruments. Eliasberg himself had to be dragged to rehearsals on a sledge. Over the next weeks, three performers died in the room.

Before the performance, Eliasberg announced on the radio that "this performance is witness to our spirit, courage, and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!" He uses the vocabulary of war and the tone is rallying for resistance. Presumably the motives behind the Soviet government's decision to perform the symphony were more about psychological warfare than art — indeed speakers were put up around the city, and the piece was played out to the Germans and across the front lines.

However, we wonder what the motives were for these starving musicians and the conductor who dragged them through. The higher food rations could have been an incentive; some perhaps felt intimidated by government pressure; some perhaps were ideologically indoctrinated to believe in sacrificing themselves for their country. And yet it seems there must have been another motive; the one which provided the fire and the heat and the light — the true dignity of their endeavour. The burning belief in performer and audience, which meant that the concert received an hour long ovation. The belief that they were reaching towards something beyond themselves, beyond their situation. Beyond war.

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Right now we are immersed in battles. We are immersed in wars across the globe, wars that are driving people from their homelands to travel treacherous journeys to uncertain refuge. We are engaged in battles of politics, race, and gender as an old world dies to a new one, and as old ideologies of violence and scapegoat tactics have another go at gaining public popularity.

Sometimes I question art in a time like ours. As an actor I question the value of my place in society and whether I'm not just engaged in a mercenary, self-serving, and egotistical industry.

To the people of Leningrad, music didn't feel like a futile response to their situation. It wasn't a solution, but it was a response — and one which perhaps carried with it something that reached beyond a solution. A solution would have been rooted in context; their statement reached past their context. It needed to be more foundational. Because any solution to the context would be flawed. In a world where truth is written by the powerful, then as now, when solutions are so often compromised and corrupted, art returns us to the bedrock, to the heart.

Our concert play The Conductor contains two actors and a pianist, and with words and music and silence we have been sharing this story for the past three years. It has been a journey of wonder for us in our company to live with this story as we developed the piece, travelled with it, played it to people across Europe, in different languages and with different scripts and scenes and energies and technology and moods. We've played in Gothenburg to three people, and under the open Roman sky, speaking out in Italian over ambulances and aeroplanes. Now we're bringing it back to London, where we first did a ten-minute extract in a cafe three years ago.  

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I am deeply grateful to have been able to walk with this story and be allied with it; to share it in our way and to bring our own desire to share a message into contact with the desire of these musicians almost eighty years ago. And to realise, that although the contexts are incomparable, the adversity incomparable, the road incomparable; the fire is the same fire, the light the same light. It is inspiring to consider that the same power of the human spirit, the same impulse to create and perform and share what we feel most sacred and potent about life, is within us, as it was in them, and is in all people.

Although art may feel futile in the face of war, or in the face of multi-billion dollar companies, or maverick presidents, it allies itself with the greatest power there is — the power which has cradled us for millennia and will continue to pulse long after we are gone — the creative power of life itself. For me, to ally ourselves with this is to be allied with a true power which cannot be silenced. Because it dwells in silence itself. In Shostakovich's words, ‘something that cannot die’.

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The Conductor is taking place at The Space Arts Centre,  London.

March 26 - April 13, 2019


Tickets can be found here.

Pushkin House Team