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. Already a world-famous composer, Shostakovich joined the war effort in late June 1941, right after the Nazi invasion. His time was divided between digging ditches throughout the city and making arrangements of light music to be played at the front. He began writing his new symphony on July 15. By the end of the month, he was reassigned to the fire-fighting brigade at the Leningrad Conservatory, and he subsequently was photographed in his fireman’s outfit, standing on the conservatory rooftop . (He made the cover of Time magazine that month wearing his fire helmet.)

    As intended, the image of a great composer ready to defend his city and his people did not go unnoticed. The American poet Carl Sandburg wrote: “Sometimes as a fire warden you run to the streets and help put out the fire set by Nazi Luftwaffe bombs. Then you walk home and write more music.” The music was the Seventh Symphony, soon to be known everywhere as the Leningrad Symphony. As Sandburg suggested, it was “music written with the heart’s blood.”

    As part of its Truth to Power three-week festival, the CSO will perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 under Jaap van Zweden on May 22-24.

    Although the members of Leningrad’s most prestigious artistic institutions, including the conservatory and the philharmonic, were evacuated that summer, Shostakovich chose to stay in Leningrad, racing with his family to the air-raid shelters and returning to his desk at home to continue writing his symphony. “Even during air raids he seldom stopped working,” his wife Nina wrote. “If things began looking too hot, he calmly finished the bar he was writing, waited until the page dried, neatly arranged what he had written and took it down with him into the bomb shelter.”

    The first movement was completed on Sept. 3. He originally had intended it to stand alone as a symphonic poem, but he now recognized that it was merely the opening chapter of a long and deeply personal work. Two more movements were written at great speed. “Our art is threatened with great danger,” he said on Leningrad radio that month. “We will defend our music.” On Oct. 1, having finished three movements, Shostakovich was evacuated from the city against his wishes. He later moved to Kuibyshev, in the Volga region, where he finished the finale in December.

    Shostakovich’s eventual official statement, “I dedicated my Seventh Symphony to our fight against fascism, to our coming victory over the enemy and to my native city of Leningrad,” is reproduced on the first page of the printed score merely as “Dedicated to the city of Leningrad.” Although Shostakovich originally gave titles to the four movements — War, Remembrance, the Wide Spaces of Our Land and Victory — he later discarded them and provided only a few hints about the meaning of the music:

    I. War breaks suddenly into our peaceful life.  … The recapitulation is a funeral march, a deeply tragic episode, a mass requiem.
    II. A lyrical intermezzo  … no program and fewer “concrete facts” than in the first movement.
    III. A pathetic adagio with drama in the middle episode.
    IV. Victory, a beautiful life in the future.

    The symphony was performed for the first time on March 5, 1942, in Kuibyshev, by the evacuated orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre. Three weeks later, it was played in Moscow. Within a month, the score was microfilmed, placed in a tin can and secretly sent to the United States, by plane and by car, in a circuitous route through Tehran, Cairo and South America before ending up in New York City. On July 19, Toscanini and his NBC Symphony introduced the symphony to this country in a radio broadcast that reached several million listeners — an unparalleled event for a piece of new music. (Toscanini beat out both Koussevitzky and Stokowski for the right to give the Western premiere.)

    Seldom has a new work received so much advance publicity and attracted so many listeners or caused such a stir. A number of the leading composers of the era who had immigrated to the United States, including Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Rachmaninov, tuned in to the July broadcast to hear what their colleague was up to. Schoenberg complained that “with composing like this, one must be grateful that he has not already gone up to Symphony No. 77,” and Hindemith simply went to his desk to write a set of fugues, the Ludus tonalis, as a way of clearing the air. Béla Bartók listened to the broadcast from his summer cottage in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and was so outraged by the repetitious first-movement march that he wrote a parody of it in his Concerto for Orchestra, on which he was then at work.

    In August, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony came home to Leningrad. After the devastations suffered during the city’s first winter under siege, only the conductor and 14 members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra — the only group of musicians who, like Shostakovich, had resisted evacuation — were still alive. Qualified musicians were brought in from the front line to fill out the orchestra, and somehow they managed to learn Shostakovich’s demanding, emotionally draining new score. Three of the players died of starvation before the premiere. The Leningrad performance, on Aug. 9, was defiantly broadcast over loudspeakers to the German troops camped outside the city.

    The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the work for the first time, under Frederick Stock, later that month, on Aug. 22, at a benefit concert for the Russian War Relief at Ravinia. Stock died a week before he was scheduled to conduct the symphony in Orchestra Hall that autumn; those performances, in late October, were led by CSO associate conductor Hans Lange, who unaccountably took an intermission between the second and third movements.

    Shostakovich had prepared a program for this new symphony that was drawing international attention. “This is the simple, peaceful life lived before the war,” he wrote of the first movement. The symphony opens confidently with a grand, striding unison theme — the voice of “people sure of themselves and their future.” But, later on, in the development section, he wrote: “War bursts into the peaceful life of these people. I am not aiming for the naturalistic depiction of war, the depiction of the clatter of arms, the explosions of shells and so on. I am trying to convey the image of war emotionally.”

    The first movement is dominated by this great marching music — what Shostakovich himself called the “invasion episode.” The theme itself could hardly sound more innocuous at first, but it’s based on an aria from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, a favorite of Hitler. Eventually the invasion music becomes so menacing and forceful that it overwhelms both the striding theme that opens the symphony and the delicate, almost Mahler-like lyrical section that follows. Bartók was not alone in attacking the numbing repetition (over the span of 350 measures) and Boléro-like crescendo of the march, over a relentless snare-drum rhythm.

    Shostakovich had anticipated a violent response even before he finished the first movement: “Let them accuse me, but that’s how I hear war,” he told a friend.

    There is irony and humor, of all things, in the second movement — necessary relief after the relentless opening Allegretto. There are hints of military music midway through, launched by the piercing song of the E-flat clarinet. Both the opening and closing pages show Shostakovich’s mastery of a solo melody over simple, repeated accompaniment figures.

    The slow movement begins with great resounding chords — wonderfully scored for full winds and two harps — followed by an eloquent string melody, strong and bracing in its naked simplicity (the lower strings occasionally offer a single note or chord as support). The solo flute provides a second theme, over plucked strings. Again, a more vigorous middle section suggests that war is not over. At the end, the strings take up the vast wind chords with which the movement began.

    “My idea of victory isn’t something brutal,” Shostakovich said. “It’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.”

    In the finale, victory does not come at once. Shostakovich begins with little more than the timpani roll that concluded the slow movement and gradually adds other voices. A broad climax quickly unwinds; a single viola line is left hanging. Finally the music slowly and deliberately moves toward a grand conclusion, sprinkled with brass fanfares and cymbal crashes and forces its way into C major — the traditional key of victory. Even then, when the symphony’s opening theme returns to crown the moment, it is chock-full of notes that have no place in C major, and the final chords in that most brilliant of keys have a bitter ring to them.