As Phillip Huscher includes in his program note, “Shostakovich composed most of his seventh symphony in Leningrad, his birthplace, during the siege of the city that ultimately took nearly a million lives—roughly one-third of its inhabitants—as a result of hunger, cold, and air raids.”
Less than a year later at the height of one of the worst periods of World War II, the symphony was given its world premiere in Kuibyshev (now Samara) on March 5, 1942, with Samuil Samosud conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Later that month on March 29, it was performed in Moscow with members of the Bolshoi orchestra and the All-Union Radio Orchestra. The now legendary premiere in Leningrad took place on August 9 under the baton of Karl Eliasberg.
In the United Kingdom, Sir Henry Wood led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a broadcast performance on June 22 followed by a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall on June 29. The United States broadcast premiere was given on July 19 in New York, with Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra (the now-famous Time magazine cover story anticipated the broadcast). Serge Koussevitzky conducted the student orchestra of the Berkshire Music Centre in the first U.S. concert performance on August 14.
And on August 22, 1942, less than six months after the world premiere, Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony—“which has aroused more interest than any other symphonic work in decades”—in a special concert for the benefit of Russian war relief at the Ravinia Festival. A complete copy of the program book is here.
According to Edward Barry‘s account in the Chicago Tribune, “All that we had heard in advance about the new work, even in the broadcast of July 19, failed to prepare us adequately for the full impact of it. Its scale is huge, and this does refer to its length (over an hour and a quarter) alone. It calls for a mammoth orchestra (99 players crowded the Ravinia stage last night). . . . These huge forces Shostakovich deploys with a boldness and a vigor and a boiling passion that are often electrifying. . . . To our generation the symphony’s faults are comparatively unimportant because of the smoking passion with which it treats of the events which are so strongly affecting our lives and enlisting our emotions. ‘My music is a weapon,’ says Shostakovich boldly, thus confounding those who would criticize the work because of a too close connection with immediate political and military events.”
Barry concludes, “Last night’s performance was an extraordinarily fine one, especially when one realizes that Dr. Stock had to master the bewildering score on short notice and communicate his findings to the orchestra in two rehearsals [for the New York premiere, Toscanini had six rehearsals].” The complete review is here.
Stock was determined to perform the work again—and soon—so he added it to the programming for the upcoming season at Orchestra Hall on October 27, 29, and 30. According to Cecil Smith, “No symphony in modern times—and perhaps no symphony in musical history—has ever been prepared for by such a barrage of publicity.”
Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened the fifty-second season with subscription concerts on October 15 and 16 and a Popular concert on October 17, 1942. On Monday October 19 it was business as usual and Stock was in Orchestra Hall’s offices, “talking over plans for the season with Henry E. Voegeli, business manager of the orchestra and his coworker for forty-three seasons.” But tragically, Stock died of a heart attack the following day and, according to Claudia Cassidy, “The bottom dropped out of Chicago’s music life . . .”
Associate conductor Hans Lange immediately assumed conducting duties, leading the majority of concerts for the remainder of the 1942-43 season, including the three performances of Shostakovich’s Seventh in Chicago and one in Milwaukee. The program was as follows (and the program note for the Leningrad Symphony is here):
October 27, 29 & 30, 1942 (Orchestra Hall)
November 15, 1942 (Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee)
SMITH/Stock The Star-Spangled Banner
BRAHMS Tragic Overture, Op. 81
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7
(On October 27, Stock’s orchestration for strings of the Andante from Bach’s Sonata for Violin no. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 was performed in memory of the Orchestra’s second music director, following The Star-Spangled Banner, also in his arrangement.)
After the October 27 concert, Cassidy wrote, “That Hans Lange and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a calm and competent performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at Orchestra Hall yesterday is undeniably, almost immeasurably, to their credit. Mr. Lange had less than a week—and a tragic week—to prepare the huge and sprawling score. . . . What counts in the score, and what should count in performance, is its blazing expression of the sound and fury of our own times, when invasion, death, defiance, and ultimate triumph are facts we understand and, a least vicariously, share.” The complete review is here.
And following the performance on October 29, Smith commented, “Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, perhaps the most successful musical best seller since Ravel’s Boléro, was repeated in magnificent style last evening. . . . [the composer] is very good at beginning musical ideas, extremely clumsy at continuing them, and virtually unable to stop them.”
Smith ended his review with, “Well, the symphony goes on the shelf for a while, after this afternoon’s repetition and a performance in Milwaukee on Nov. 15. I wonder what it will sound like after the war?”