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Ragtag orchestra fought to keep hope alive

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HITLER’S siege of Leningrad lasted from 1941 to 1944 and is described as the most devastating assault in history on an urban centre, claiming about a million civilian lives.

Yet in the face of almost certain death either by Nazi bombardment, starvation or freezing cold, a ragtag radio orchestra broadcast hope to Russians in the stirring music of Dmitri Shostakovich. This historical novel about this seemingly impossible event richly imagined, brought life through meticulous research about the siege and the lives of composer Shostakovich Eliasburg, conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, as well as other Russian personalities.

Author Sarah Quigley, a New Zealander living in Berlin, is also a poet and short-story writer. Her prose is appropriately lyrical, inspired by the sweeping movements of strings and woodwinds. Canadian readers may be reminded of Steven Galloway’s 2008 novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, which also uses music as a metaphor to suggest the terrors of war.

In this, her fourth novel, Quigley portrays Shostakovich as what we expect a composer to be — moody, introverted, brilliant — but also childishly addicted to sports and prone to adultery.

Neither his beleaguered wife’s harangues, nor the chatter of his children, nor the ear-splitting explosions of incendiary bombs can stop music from forming in his head. "Shostakovich stopped listening and heard the counterpoint in their voices," Quigley writes, "The first line soared away and fell back: a yearning for distance, a desire for intimacy, until, for one perfect second, both strands became one."

She portrays Eliasburg as a self-acknowledged "unemotional" conductor, considered second-rate. Nevertheless he becomes the improbable hero, cobbling together anyone who can play a musical instrument after many Radio Orchestra members die or enlist to fight.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony runs 70 minutes. Playing it is a daunting physical feat for musicians whose meagre bread rations are mixed with sawdust, who suffer from dysentery and other diseases of malnutrition and exposure, who experience the trauma of watching their families die.

Eliasburg drives trumpet players too weak to blow a note and violinists who can barely saw at their strings. "Under the music he heard the rasping of breath, deep and harsh," Quigley writes, "the very same sound he’d heard that morning as he’d tried spooning cabbage water into his mother’s mouth."

Quigley creates vivid images in writing the backstory that bring the characters to this point in time. And she is not restrained in her description of what happened to Leningrad and its people.

When the siege began, the city had only one month’s food supply. Attempts to get supplies through the blockade were haphazard, with much of the food directed to feed soldiers. Ration cards were quickly pilfered from bodies in the streets. When spring arrived, the snowmelt revealed the reality of desperation. The characters note the grim details of cannibalism as they try to resist spiraling downward in similar fashion, tested as their energies dwindle.

Quigley alludes to tensions growing in political circles in the Soviet Union at the same time the war is being fought, as everyone second guesses their decisions and comments. This layer of the story has impact, but is left as another struggle that will develop in the years to follow.

The only discordant twang is the character of Sonia, a fictional nine-year-old cello virtuoso whose voice is more like a saucy adult than a mature child. Otherwise this is an absorbing narrative about physical and emotional survival in the face of the worst adversity known.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

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