Author analyzes history of symphony

The interplay between art and history is often overlooked.

Bestselling author M.T. Anderson reminded his audience of the remarkable way art and history can intertwine during an evening of literature and classical music at the Fletcher Free Library March 31.

Anderson read the prologue of his new nonfiction book, “Symphony for the City of the Dead,” an account of the siege of Leningrad through the eyes of famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

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Author M.T. Anderson talks about his new book “Symphony for the City of the Dead” in the Fletcher Free Library March 31. PHIL CARRUTHERS/The Vermont Cynic

The book, published September 2015, is Anderson’s first nonfiction book for teenage readers and has been nominated for the 2015 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, according to a New York Times review. 

The talk was particularly interesting for senior Shyshy Fink, who is currently writing a research paper on Shostakovich’s symphony.

“Seeing him filled with joy about talking about Shostakovich’s life and his music at the lecture was great,” Fink said. “And he knows so many interesting things about the composer that I haven’t found yet.”

“Symphony for the City of the Dead” delves into the emotional history of the siege of Leningrad.

“We need to understand the depth of that historic sacrifice if we’re ever going to understand modern Russia and its people,” Anderson said in an interview with the National Book Foundation.

Leningrad was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history — the German army blockaded and bombarded the city for almost three years, during which almost a million civilians perished of starvation.

“This is really a story of war and the power of music to triumph,” Anderson said, “which I think is really important for us to understand, if we are going to understand what it means to be human.”

While Shostakovich was in hiding during the siege, he wrote a piece called the “Leningrad Symphony” to tell the world what was going on. It was played in the United States and Great Britain, forming an Allied interest in the Russian cause during World War II.

Anderson’s reading was complemented by a string quartet’s performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 7,” which Shostakovich dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war.”

“This piece turned me on to classical music as a teenager,” Anderson said.

As the quartet played, he explained the hidden meanings within the piece. Listeners could identify the discrete drone of warplanes flying overhead. It ranged from pure chaos to ominous laments.

Shostakovich left the meaning of his music hidden and ambiguous.

“If he was more open or blatant he would have been exterminated,” Anderson said.

When Anderson first heard the piece, he said he had no idea of its historical implications.

“Knowing the historical context of art definitely enriches it, but it’s not necessary,” Anderson said. “If you get something out of it, that’s what’s important.”

“Symphony for the City of the Dead” is dedicated to “all young musicians,” Anderson wrote. “Thank you for what you give the rest of us.”