There is a lot of back-story and context to this symphony. For one thing it has a very unusual dedication: "To the City of Leningrad". By 1941, the Soviet Union was at war with Nazi Germany. In June the Germans launched a massive attack called Operation Barbarossa along an 1800 mile front: the largest invasion in history with four million soldiers. One part of the invasion resulted in the siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich's home town and where he was living at the time and teaching at the conservatory. The siege began in September 1941 when the last land connection with the outside world was cut off and did not end until January 1944, nearly 900 days later! Nearly one and a half million soldiers and civilians died in the siege, the most destructive in modern history.
Shostakovich was a patriot, volunteering for the Home Guard where he was put to work digging trenches and anti-tank emplacements. Later he was assigned to a firefighting brigade. Officials in charge of these groups made every effort to keep Shostakovich away from any potential danger. Shostakovich occupied himself composing patriotic songs. But in July 1941 he started work on his 7th Symphony. He later said "I wrote my Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, quickly. I couldn't not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people, I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music." By August, the first movement was complete. Many of the personnel of the artistic and intellectual institutions of Leningrad were already being evacuated, but Shostakovich resisted even though by this point Nazi shelling of the city was constant. On Sept. 17th some friends gathered at Shostakovich's apartment to hear him play two completed movements. A week later was his thirty-fifth birthday. A few days later he completed the third movement and finally, on Oct 1, Shostakovich was ordered to evacuate and was flown out with his wife and two children. On the very same flight was the poet Anna Akhmatova who wrote this poem in remembrance of Shostakovich:
There is a magic burning in it,
Cutting its facets diamond clear,
And it alone calms me in minutes
When others do not dare come near.
When my last friend cast down his eyes,
It was at my side at the grave,
It sang as thunder in spring skies
As if all flowers started raving.
Alas, the evacuation, first to Moscow and later, further east, disrupted his compositional process--two months later he was still struggling to complete the fourth movement. Finally, by Dec. 27, it was finished.
The first movement begins in the beauty and serenity of peace and even when the famous march theme appears, it sounds jaunty, innocuous. At the beginning of the war everyone was very optimistic. But in one of the most fascinating musical transformations Shostakovich slowly makes this theme menacing, horrific, agonizing. The whole middle section of the movement, some eleven minutes, beginning with the very soft tattoo on the snare drum, about seven minutes into the movement, is one giant crescendo--essentially unrecordable because there is no sound system or recording technology I know of that can capture the full dynamic range from one snare drum playing very soft to full orchestra with all those percussion and brass instruments. As I recall, in the performance I heard live, there were six percussionists as well. The first movement, as Shostakovich says, engraves the image of war. The second and third movements are, as he describes them, a "lyrical respite" and the last movement is a summary of the preceding three that is perhaps not as cheerful, nor optimistic as might have been hoped for.