“The Conductor” Tells Tale of Wartime Tragedy and Triumph

Above: The first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad.” Bernard Haitink leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is as much a certainty of life as death and taxes: History will forget some of the world’s people and stories, so that those who come later can be reminded that it is our job to bring to light, once again, the lives and times of those who came before.

This is precisely what New Zealand novelist Sarah Quigley has done in her most recent novel, The Conductor. Quigley’s book tells a fictionalized version of the dramatic genesis and Leningrad premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, known as his “Leningrad” symphony. Shostakovich composed most of the work while Soviet Russia was under siege by the Nazis, and conceived of it as a monument to the people of his native St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad in 1924. The Leningrad premiere of the symphony, led by conductor Karl Eliasberg and performed by an orchestra decimated by wartime destruction and privation, remains at once one of music history’s most heartbreaking and most heroic performances.

As the novel’s title suggests, it is Eliasberg’s story, not Shostakovich’s, that is the book’s main affair. It is historical fact that Eliasberg lived in Leningrad and conducted the Leningrad Radio Orchestra at a time when Shostakovich was arguably the city’s biggest musical celebrity. By comparison with the genius Shostakovich and others in Leningrad musical life, Eliasberg was something of a B-list player, upstaged in conducting prestige by Yevgeny Mravinsky, a friend of Shostakovich and principal conductor of the city’s leading ensemble, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

Eliasberg’s premiere of the “Leningrad” symphony under the desperate circumstances of the siege of Leningrad would be his moment of glory. And because Eliasberg’s career all but fell into oblivion after the end of World War II, Quigley’s retelling of his role in the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s longest symphony is all the more important.

But even where historical details are well documented, how Quigley toys with the intentionally blurry boundary between fact and fiction sometimes has unhappy results for the historical characters in her novel. Quigley points out in her Author’s Note that “…where little documentation exists, I have retained real names but have largely fictionalised backgrounds and personalities.” These approaches are the right – and, really, the necessity – of the novelist, who is engaged more with the creation of art than with the chronicling of fact. But Quigley’s fictionalization of personalities doesn’t always render fully convincing characters.

Of Eliasberg Quigley paints a picture of so love-deprived and obsequious a man that one wonders how he manages even the successes he does manage in the book. In one scene in The Conductor, Eliasberg appears at Shostakovich’s apartment to deliver a package of blank staff paper. Shostakovich plays for him at the piano the first movement of what will become his “Leningrad” symphony. Afterwards, Eliasberg leaves the apartment, pulls a sheet of paper from his briefcase, writes “MAGNIFICENT” on it and with, one imagines, the impulsiveness of a love-sick schoolkid, slips it under the door to Shostakovich’s apartment. I assume this episode was fictitious; such toadyism is difficult to imagine of a man who so aspires to be taken seriously as a professional.

Quigley’s narrative progresses through the Nazi siege of Leningrad, an all-fronts strangling of the Russian city that would last more than two years. Mravinsky and the musicians of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra are shuffled off to Siberia, where they can avoid the dangers of besieged Leningrad. Shostakovich and his family are evacuated to Moscow. Shostakovich finishes his Seventh Symphony, and the work is given performances in Kuibyshev (Samara), Moscow, London and New York. He arranges to have the score of  it dropped into Leningrad by aircraft.

By the time Eliasberg leads the Leningrad premiere of the symphony on August 9, 1942, only 15 musicians are left in the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, the others having died defending the city or of starvation and associated illness. The musicians who remain are so malnourished that they have scarcely enough strength to play their instruments. These details and others of the steady disintegration of wartime Leningrad and its people Quigley paints vividly and always – despite the horrors of destruction circling like vultures around the novel’s characters – with a sense of greater things to come.

Those greater things are Eliasberg’s successful (given the circumstances) performance of the “Leningrad” symphony and his deepening romantic liaison with Nina Bronnikova. Eliasberg and his bedraggled orchestra stagger through the massive Seventh Symphony to the acclaim of all Leningrad. In The Conductor Nina Bronnikova and Eliasberg fall in love; Quigley’s fictional narrative ends here.

The historical narrative, of course, continued. Eliasberg and Bronnikova marry. And perhaps even more intriguing than the circumstances of the “Leningrad” symphony’s debut is what happened to Eliasberg’s career after the war. Once Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic return from exile, Eliasberg all but disappears from the Leningrad musical scene. He conducts the Leningrad Philharmonic’s “reserve” orchestra only twice after the end of the war, finding the bulk of his conducting opportunities in other Russian towns. In a 2001 story for The Guardian, Ed Vulliamy suggests that envy and power play, possibly led by Mravinsky, may have thwarted Eliasberg’s Leningrad career.

Such material doesn’t make for an uplifting ending to a novel, of course. Still, it is part of the ongoing drama of The Conductor: War changes people, hopefully for the better. Yet, plus ça change …

And it is on this purely human level that we can relate to the personages and story of The Conductor. Our universal heartache compels us to want the underdog, however construed, to triumph. History books can give us details of the lives of Shostakovich and others of his day. But art specializes in interpreting the lines brushed onto the larger canvas of the soul. Just as Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony came to be a wartime gift to and symbol of the people of Leningrad, The Conductor ultimately reminds us of the deep waters, beautiful if troubled, of the human condition.

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