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Sarah Quigley: The Conductor
If you have ever seen Shostakovich‘s Leningrad Symphony performed, as I did recently, you cannot fail to have been impressed by what the composer achieved given that most of it was written when Leningrad was under siege from the Nazis. Quigley’s book is about the Siege of Leningrad, known as the Blockade of Leningrad in Russian. The siege lasted 872 days and thousands lost their lives. It is also famous for Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and it is this symphony that also features strongly in this novel.
The first third of the novel is about the period immediately leading up to the Siege. The people are concerned about the possibility of the Germans’ attacking but mostly they go on with their lives. The main focus is on a group of people associated with classical music in Leningrad. Shostakovich himself is the main character. While obviously a fine musician, he is a not a very good husband or father. He neglects his family for his music (and to watch his beloved Zenit St Petersburg football team). He has not been a faithful husband to Nina Varzar, so much so that they divorced because of his infidelity but then remarried when Nina became pregnant with their first child. But he is clearly well liked, particularly by women. His friend Nikolai Nikolaev, a teacher of music, is a widower. His wife, a famous cellist, died soon after their daughter, Sonya, was born. For a long time, Nikolai could not stand to look at his daughter, as she reminded him of his late wife but he has now come round and Sonya is learning the cello. The day he has to send her off to Pskov when Leningrad is being partially evacuated is a very poignant part of the book.
However, despite the importance of Shostakovich and his symphony, the book is, as the title says, about a conductor. He is Karl Eliasberg. Eliasberg is the son of a shoemaker. He has always resented this, not least because his father expected him to follow in his footsteps. But young Karl had no interest in shoes but loved music from the start. He had managed to get a scholarship to the Conservatory, where he had played the piano well (but probably not as well as his fellow student, Shostakovich). He was always an outsider, famously playing the piano at a concert in a fur coat. When he damages his hand, he switches to conducting. He is now the conductor of the Radio Symphonic Orchestra and definitely the second-best conductor in Leningrad, always behind Yevgeny Mravinsky, conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic and Shostakovich’s conductor of choice. Eliasberg lives alone with his mother, who is becoming senile. He is a figure of fun, mocked for his punctuality, looked down on by the musicians of the orchestra and ignored by Shostakovich, who barely knows who he is.
When the Germans attack and seem to quickly approach the city, everyone, even Shostakovich, volunteers. Shostakovich is drafted to dig ditches. Eliasberg, however, is turned down as he has a heart problem. Quigley paints a vivid but grim portrait of the city under attack. There are regular bombings, with corpses often left in the snow. Food is scarce, with only one route into the city, which is regularly bombed by the Germans. Meanwhile, life goes on. The tune that started as a march has now evolved into a symphony and Shostakovich works on that, till the authorities tell him he has to leave the city. Eliasberg’s orchestra goes from bad to worse, as the players die off, leave or are just too cold, too hungry and too tired to play. But then they are told that they have to give a performance of Shostakovich’s new symphony, to bolster the morale of the inhabitants and to show the Germans that they are undefeated and undefeatable.
Quigley tells a superb story very well. Everything, from the horrors of Leningrad under siege, to arguments between the musicians, from family problems – Eliasberg and his mother, Shostakovich and his family – to how to survive, is described in superb prose, which never lets up in quality. In particular, her portrait of the slightly odd conductor Karl Eliasberg is first-rate.
First published 2011 by Vintage