Symphony for the City of the Dead
Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
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. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, writing a symphony to rouse, rally, eulogize, and commemorate his fellow citizens: the Leningrad Symphony. 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.
Praise For Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad…
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In a gripping narrative, helped along by ample photos and shockingly accurate historical details, Anderson offers readers a captivating account of a genius composer and the brutally stormy period in which he lived. Though easily accessible to teens, this fascinating, eye- opening, and arresting book will be just as appealing for adults.
—Booklist (starred review)
This ambitious and gripping work is narrative nonfiction at its best...The book has all the intrigue of a spy thriller, recounts the horrors of living during the three year siege, and delineates the physical oppression and daunting foes within and outside of the city. This is also the story of survival against almost impossible odds. Through it all, Anderson weaves the thread of the composer’s music and the role it played in this larger-than-life drama. A must-have title with broad crossover appeal
—School Library Journal (starred review)
Anderson brings his narrative A-game to this dense work of nonfiction, blending the complex strands of the story into a satisfying whole. Embellished with scores of photographs and peppered with the author’s own commentary on the symphony, the text and supporting materials supply historical background for music enthusiasts and musical interpretation for history buffs. Source notes, index, and bibliography will aid report writers, but the most appreciative audience is likely to be engaged readers who settle into the tragic yet uplifting story of a suffering nation and its musical documentarian.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (starred review)
A fascinating...examination of an important musical figure living in a time of extraordinary political and social turmoil.
It culminates in a rich and moving understanding of the intersection of culture and history, and of the power of the arts to save a nation.
Symphony for the City of the Dead is an intense historical account that is highly recommended reading for anyone studying World War II or readers with an interest in history or music.
M.T. Anderson presents a thrilling history of music and the terrible events of World War II. Extensively researched and passionately told, Symphony for the City of the Dead exposes the strengths and weaknesses of humanity through an engrossing tale of war, art and undying creativity.
An ambitious work of nonfiction ... sweeping and emotionally charged.
—The Horn Book
...a sweeping work of narrative nonfiction for adolescent readers.
—The Wall Street Journal
A must-have for high-school classrooms and libraries. It’s the work of an author who has never jumped onto any trend-wagon, but has instead followed his own keen intelligence toward a big, essential story.
—New York Journal of Books
[Anderson's] not just parading the events of Shostakovich’s life before the reader; he’s by the reader’s side, helping them to make sense of what they see...It’s been a while since a book about Shostakovich impressed me this much. Symphony for the City of the Dead is worth reading whatever your age.
Fans of M.T. Anderson’s National Book Award-winning YA novel, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1” and acclaimed dystopian novel “Feed,” will not be surprised at the brilliance of the writing and the meticulous research on display in this marvelous, compulsively readable biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the great city that inspired his Seventh Symphony.
—The Buffalo News
Candlewick, 9780763691004, 464pp.
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Why does the author choose to open with the story of the microfilm? What other topics does he touch on in the prologue that prove important in the book? What storytelling elements does M. T. Anderson use to pull readers in and entice them to read the story?
2. Shostakovich was public admired at times and public derided at others. What caused the different opinions? What effect did this have on his life and family?
3. Violence and deprivation permeated the Soviet Union during this period. What were the goals of those perpetrating violence? How did the violence and deprivation affect cities and the country’s cultural heritage? How did they affect families and daily life?
4. One of Shostakovich’s friends said, “He learned to put on a mask he would wear for the rest of his life” (139). M. T. Anderson echoes this point in the author’s note, describing the composer as “a man who learned to live behind a mask” (382). Note other examples of this metaphor as it relates to the composer’s life, the lives of those around him, and the political situation.
5. “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience” (281). This idea is raised more than once in the narrative. What does the author mean? How do audiences react differently to Shostakovich’s symphonies in different places, including the United States.
6. Unlike many nonfiction authors, M. T. Anderson addresses the reader directly at times. In one example, he says, “It is easy for us all to imagine we are heroes when we are sitting in our kitchens, dreaming of distant suffering” (117). Discuss this approach and the reason the author takes it. What do you think of Anderson’s overall point of view toward Shostakovich?
7. Anderson discusses problems with his sources and their reliability. He evaluates an anecdote about Shostakovich seeing Lenin (24-26). How does the author handle the uncertainty about its credibility? How does this relate to Anderson’s comments on page 140 about the authenticity of Shotakovich’s memoir and discussion in the author’s note about the trustworthiness of sources in the Soviet era?
8. “Anderson writes in the prologue that “at its heart,” the book is “a story about the power of music and its meanings” (7). Do you agree? Did music help people feel less alone?