SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

M.T. Anderson

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson delivers a brilliant and riveting account of the Siege of Leningrad and the role played by Russian composer Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony.

In September of 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 that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets; their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books,

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National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson delivers a brilliant and riveting account of the Siege of Leningrad and the role played by Russian composer Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony.

In September of 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 that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets; their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

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.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Paperback
  • February 2017
  • 464 Pages
  • 9780763691004

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$14.99

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About M.T. Anderson

M. T. Anderson is the author of Feed, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume I: The Pox Party, winner of the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller, and its sequel, The Kingdom on the Waves, which was also a New York Times bestseller. Both volumes were also named Michael L. Printz Honor Books. M. T. Anderson lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Author Website

Praise

A 2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist
Winner of the Julia Ward Howe Prize
Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year
National Book Award Longlist

“A triumphant story of bravery and defiance that will shock and inspire.”—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)

Discussion Questions

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?