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"Several decades have passed since the extremely difficult years of the Siege and the first performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. It still astounds me how strong man is! How hardy man is! A participant of the Seventh Symphony performance, I myself cannot believe how, under such inhuman conditions, it was possible to play music, or for a symphony orchestra to peform," said Zhavdet Aydarov (1918-2000) during one of his meetings with students. He was recalling the days of the Siege. It was difficult for him to go back to the topic – the ordeal was beyond description – and yet he considered it his duty to tell about the heroism of the Leningrad artists, about the legendary city-front, about the performance of Dmitry Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony...

The Second World War saw Zhavdet Aydarov as an army musician in the Leningrad Military District's Orchestra. Like all those who remained in the city, he rises to its defense: he builds fortifications, becomes a member of the local anti-aircraft defense, and a messenger. In a letter to his mother on 16 July, 1941 he wrote: "After the declaration of war, we're working as the commandant's team. So far no news about being sent to the front." The question would remain open – he would never be sent to the front lines, he would instead become a "soldier of the musical front". Aydarov's letters to his relatives abound in phrases like "everything's fine", "safe and sound", while in reality the situation was more than critical. Due to postal censorship, in letters from besieged Leningrad we can only find words of encouragement and the most general information about the city. The musician kept silent about many things, and he would tell them only after the war ended.

From Aydarov's letters to his father K.A. Aidarov and mother L.D. Dinmukhametova from the besieged city.

July 16, 1941. After the declaration of war, we're working as the commandant's team. So far no news about being sent to the front.

December 11, 1941. So far I'm being paid ten rubles, which goes to the defense fund. I got your letter, which was delivered in exactly two months and six days. Mom, tell me how it is in Tashkent now. <...> If they admit parcels, then send some more rusks, even burnt ones, and do salt the butter or lard so that they do not spoil.

January 17, 1942. Myself, I'm safe and sound. You may know from the newspapers what kind of situation Leningrad is in.

February 11, 1942. Today we had a joyful day, almost a holiday: today they've added two hundred grams of bread, so now we get six hundred grams in total. I just wanted to share my joy with you. Today I had my breakfast with the extra two hundred grams of bread, stuffed my mouth full of bread and felt it in my mouth. <...> Life is getting better in Leningrad, I think by the first of March Leningrad will be supplied with food quite normally.

May 7, 1942. I am still in my old place, but for a musician I have very little to do with music. I work all the time as a messenger. Now that the streetcars are in work it's easier for my legs: you don't have to walk so much and don't get so tired. <...> Many of my comrades from the conservatory and college are on the front, at advanced positions, and many of them are killed or wounded. Last winter I asked to be sent to the front, but so far I wasn't. It's a shame that all my comrades were on the front while I was in the rear, although Leningrad does feel like a front these days.

In the spring of 1942, a significant event occurred in Aydarov's life. The radio announced that musicians should gather at the Radio Committee to prepare for the premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, conductor Karl Eliasberg. Just as his comrades-in-arms from the military orchestra – trombonist V. M. Orlovsky, French horn player P. K. Orekhov and bassoonist G. Z. Eremkin – Aydarov receives a letter of assignment and is placed "at the disposal of the head of the Radio Committee".

There begins the difficult stage of rehearsing the symphony. Aydarov recalled:

"Gathered from the front, young musicians and veterans who still remembered the orchestra pit of the imperial opera, began the long rehearsals interspersed with fighting with "lighters" , fainting from hunger, and death.

Not far from the Radio Committee, in the Astoria Hotel, a hospital was set up for the extremely emaciated and dystrophic. Here Karl Eliasberg, our conductor, was sent with his wife, Nadezhda Bronnikova – a wonderful pianist, concertmaster on the radio. Here in Astoria lived the outstanding pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky.

Punctual Eliasberg made no allowances. Physically exhausted, he remained unyielding and strong in spirit, fierce in his love of music, and still an excellent organizer. The success of our work on the Seventh Symphony owes significantly to the conductor's strict discipline and sternness.

At first the rehearsals were short – we played for 20 or 30 minutes at most, often interrupted by bombardments, but we gradually absorbed ourselves in our work. It was as if the music itself gave us strength. I was the youngest musician among the percussionists, and I was given the drum solo –  that terrible rhythm which is the background for the Nazi invasion theme.

I was so nervous my hands were shaking, the drumsticks would touch the drumhead at random. Eliasberg was asking me to repeat each phrase over and over again."

Zhavdet Aydarov was in awe of the outstanding conductor who saved his life at a critical moment. For Aydarov it was perhaps one of the most vivid, dramatic memories the Siege, forever engraved in his memory:

"During one of the rehearsals, hungry and exhausted, I fainted. Apparently, they thought I was dead and carried me to the room next door to the studio, that's where the dead were taken.

Eliasberg was told I was dead, and he went into the room where I lay with no signs of life. Suddenly the conductor's sensitive ear caught a barely audible sound of breathing. "He's alive! - Eliasberg exclaimed. – Do you hear it? He's breathing!"

Aydarov was brought back into the ranks and given an extra slice of bread to revive him a little. He remained part of the orchestra and later he took part in the premiere of the Seventh Symphony...

"Seven PM on August 9, 1942. Besieged Leningrad. Stunning silence. (A little earlier our artillery had suppressed the enemy batteries with fire, carrying out the order of 80 minutes of silence.) The hall was overcrowded. There were soldiers, workers, intellectuals. Famous writers Nikolai Tikhonov, Olga Bergholtz, Vsevolod Vishnevsky and others. Here on the stage come out the musicians: some in uniforms and military clothes, some in woolen jackets – a motley of dress. The last to come is our stern, demanding, surprisingly charming Karl Illich. He is very tall, thin, and seems to be bent over like a question mark. He's raising his hands. His baton is shaking... I played the theme of the invasion, probably with a fierce sense of hatred for fascism. We all played passionately. Finally the symphony's over. An unprecedented silence reigns over the hall. Conductor Eliasberg is standing still. And suddenly, a storm of applause."

Throughout his life, Aydarov served the art of music selflessly, devoting much effort to pedagogical work, and became a well-known cultural figure of the Volga region. He always remained a true intellectual, for whom high moral principles were an integral part of life, an important component of the image of a professional musician – and for a good reason indeed. The years of the Siege hardened his character, formed a scale of values where moral integrity, esprit de corps, kindness, and honesty always came first.

On 9 August 2022, on the 80th anniversary of Dmitry Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony's premiere in Leningrad, the St. Petersburg Philharmonia will again play the Symphony as part of the "Memory Score" project and hold an exhibition which will feature letters by Zhavdet Aydarov.

Nadim Aydarov

Candidate of Arts

Institute of Theater, Music, and Choreography

at Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia

Zhavdet Aydarov's grandson

When reading the memorial literature about Karl Eliasberg written in different times by very different people one can’t but notice two features of character which defined his disposition and the world view, and are mentioned in almost every piece of memoirs. These features are intolerance to falsehood – be it in music or in life at large, an impeccable sense of style – again, both in work and everyday life, and extra-conscientiousness. Such combination of qualities coupled with creative talent was almost certainly to “guarantee” their possessor difficulties in the official career and the unquestionable respect among those who are themselves capable of holding to these principles. The conductor’s life serves as a perfect illustration of this statement.

“Intransigence stemming from the uncompromising attitude and exactingness to himself astonished people who knew him but little,” wrote Evgeniy Svetlanov, who thought of Eliasberg as of “a European brought up in the high artistic traditions of Leningrad’s Philharmonic”. Karl Eliasberg was one of the best conductors of his generation, and the best orchestras from both capitals considered it an honour to work with him. And yet, he stayed in the people’s memory as “the conductor of one symphony” – Shostakovich’s Seventh symphony.

Eliasberg was born in Minsk. He moved to Petrograd in 1922 and entered the violin class of Sergey Pavlovich Korguev in the conservatory. He graduated in 1930, and by that time he had already gained vast practical experience: in 1928-1932 Eliasberg was a concertmaster in the Music Comedy Theatre, where he made his conductor’s debut in the operetta “Rose Marie”.

On 5 August 1932 the 25-year-old Karl Eliasberg became the staff conductor of the Leningrad Radio Committee orchestra. In 1936 he was contracted for the position of the chief conductor, yet it was only in 1944 that he became the chief conductor on-staff. Starting from January 1938 Eliasberg commenced performances in the Grand Philharmonic Hall. In May 1940 the Honoured Orchestra of the Republic (the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra) performed on a tour to Moscow, with Evgeniy Mravinskiy, Nikolay Rabinovich and Karl Eliasberg as conductors. Since that time his name was mentioned along the names of the most promising conductors of the country.

Although Karl Il’ych regularly took part in the performances of the Honoured Orchestra of the Republic, and in the three years that separate the day of his first meeting the orchestra from the tragic events of the early years of the Great Patriotic war he found home in the Leningrad Philharmonic, still his main place of work was the Leningrad Radio Committee orchestra where he continuously acted as chief conductor. In 1941, when both opera theatres, philharmonic and conservatory were evacuated from Leningrad, there was only one orchestra left in the city – the Leningrad Radio Committee orchestra conducted by Eliasberg.

What followed can be best described by the laconic words from Karl Eliasberg’s autobiography: “By March 1942 under the siege conditions the orchestra lost over 50% of its staff. With the help of the Gorkom (the Communist party city committee) and the Political Administration of the Leningrad front I managed to replenish the orchestra and revive its activities. Being the only conductor in the besieged city I did the following: conducted 85 symphony orchestra concerts in the Philharmonic Hall, 254 radio concerts, 54 operatic performances, a number of patronage concerts in the hospitals and the Red Army and Navy regiments. Moreover, the orchestra recorded soundtracks to several documentaries and newsreels. On 9 August 1942 under the severe conditions of the siege we gave the first Leningrad performance of the Seventh symphony by Shostakovich”.  These lines reveal the heroic and tragic epic of Artistic Creativeness in the extreme conditions of the blockade reality.

During the siege years Eliasberg’s orchestra – this is how Leningraders called it – performed everything that was created by Leningrad composers. This is yet another important evidence of the conductor’s creative creed: to make the contemporaries hear the musical pulse of the besieged city.

Eliasberg’s archives, now preserved in the St. Petersburg Museum of Music and Theatre, retain numerous evidence – photographs, documents – about the meetings of the orchestra during the siege, and on the Victory day, and on the anniversary day of the Seventh’s performance. A small postcard issued to the 30th Victory anniversary bears the following neatly written greeting: “Dear Karl Il’ych! The team of the “Leningrader” symphony fighters sends warm greetings to our leader…”. In 1975 only 21 people out of 80 taking part in the performance on 9 August 1942 were still living. 18 of them signed the postcard. The text also contains the moving words about Eliasberg’s personal courage which “allowed us to endure, and make a great holiday for all Leningraders, and to impress and astound the whole world!” Thirty years after the event Eliasberg still remained for the orchestra members, as well as for the city of Leningrad, a true tuning fork, the paragon of spiritual strength, courage and intransigence in his service to music.

Images of the exhibits are provided by the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music
Images of the exhibits are provided by the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music
Images of the exhibits are provided by the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music

A tuning fork is a symbolic thing as well a functional tool. It is a small metallic object that can produce only one sound of an absolute purity. It is an instrument used to ultimately tune the whole orchestra. The exhibition which is due to open on 9 August in the Philharmonic Hall as a part of the Memory Score project will feature the tuning fork which once belonged to Karl Eliasberg (also the exhibit of the Museum of Music and Theatre). It is this very instrument that was used to tune the orchestra’s instruments in summer 1942 so that every sound written by Shostakovich reached the hearts of the people, so that the world plunged in the war could hear Music, could tune to its pure and powerful sounds…

For the orchestra and for the contemporaries the Leningrad Conductor Karl Eliasberg was such a tuning fork – in his creative work and in his mode of life.

Julia Kantor,

Memory Score project curator

PhD in History

In the library of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall there is a unique exhibit preserving the memory of the Great Patriotic war and the Philharmonic seasons in besieged Leningrad: it is a hand-written volume of the Philharmonic concert programmes from 5 April 1942 till 1 May 1944. Its yellowish pages keep the detailed information about the Philharmonic concerts which took place in the indicated time period: date, the kind of advertising, the concert bill and the list of performers, the data about the musicians’ fees, audience numbers and the total money raised. All data are arranged in columns.

The date of the first concert registered in the book is 5 April 1942, and it is not a chance coincidence. It was on this day that the Philharmonic concerts of the first siege year, interrupted by the tragic winter of 1941-1942, were resumed. From mid-December 1941 the Big Philharmonic Hall stayed closed. In early February the violinist Viktor Alexandrovich Zavetnovsky wrote to his daughter: “The concerts have come to a halt. The cold is unmerciful in the Philharmonic Hall, and there is no light. We go every day to the Radio to rehearse, but they keep cancelling them (rehearsals) – now because of the cold, then because of no light. Instead of seventy only about thirty people come – some are dead, others are sick”.

On 10 March 1942 Boris Ivanovic Zagursky, head of the Arts Committee in the Leningrad Gorispolkom (city executive committee), writes to the city authorities with a request to open the Philharmonic Hall, pointing out that “it could be used for different musical events (symphony concerts, opera pieces, ballet evenings, chamber music concerts, performances of the Red Army and Red Navy ensembles, etc.”. The hall was in a good condition, it was only necessary to “give an order to the Lenenergo (Leningrad energy company) to switch on electricity for lighting, and to the heating supplier – to provide heating”.

And yet initially the Radio Committee orchestra conducted by Karl Il’ych Eliasberg performed in the Pushkin State Academic Drama Theatre. It was there on 5 April 1942 that the cycle of the Philharmonic concerts was opened. The Philharmonic book painstakingly registers all the organizational issues: the concert programme was mixed, the orchestra played only in the first act, there was an event poster published sized 1 page, the concert bill was published, “the musicians were duly paid”. The book keeps the record of the audience numbers – 1269 people, and the total money raised by the concert – 13200 roubles. The second concert on 12 April happened in the same place. That time the orchestra gave a full-fledged two-part concert. The first act featured Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Serov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the second act – Rossini, Gounod, Liszt. There were more people in the audience, numbered 1303, and the money was bigger, too. The third concert took place on 19 April, but in the building of the Navy House. (On the same day the Pushkin Theatre hosted the concert of the Red Army Song and Dance Ensemble of the Leningrad front political administration headed by Alexander Ivanovich Anisimov. It is this concert that was entered into the book). The fourth concert took place in the Pushkin Theatre again, and the concert programme was identical to the previous one: Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Bizet, Strauss, Liszt.

Only the fifth concert of the Radio Committee orchestra took place in the Grand Philharmonic Hall. The renewal of the orchestra activities was obviously timed to coincide with the May Day festivities. Let us look in the Philharmonic book: the posters and concert bills were published, there were announcements made on the radio. (One of the widely published photos from spring 1942 shows the sale of the tickets for the opening Philharmonic concert in Nevsky prospect. On the wall there is a big poster with the details of the concerts in the Grand Philharmonic Hall on 1 and 2 May. The concert programme consisted exclusively of Tchaikovsky‘s works: the suite from the Swan Lake, arias from the operas Iolanta and Mazeppa, and the Fifth symphony. The performers were: the symphony orchestra, conductor – Karl Eliasberg, soloist – Valentin Legkov, presenter - David Bekker. The small number of people in the audience is surprising – 142. The note in the last column explains it: “The permission for the concert from the Arts Committee arrived only on 29 April”. Be it as it may, but 1 May 1942 can be justly considered a second birth for the Philharmonic Hall, alongside 12 June 1921, when it was opened and hosted its first concert. It is symbolic that both dates are connected with the name of P.I. Tchaikovsky: on both occasions the concerts consisted entirely of his works.

The siege book of the Philharmonic concerts comes to the end on 1 May 1944 in Leningrad completely free from the Nazi siege. The book keeps records of the performances of the Leningrad artists – the notable place is taken by K.I. Eliasberg, who was the only conductor of the only orchestra in the besieged city. It keeps the names of the renown musicians who came to Leningrad by air after the siege was broken on 18 January 1943. Among them are Maria Yudina, Jacob Zak, David Oistrakh, Pavel Serebryakov, Emil Gilels, Lev Oborin, and even Sviatoslav Richter, who gave only one concert in the besieged city in January 1944, several weeks before the siege was completely lifted. Yet without doubt, the most legendary page of the book, as well as of the Philharmonic history during the siege on the whole, is the page describing the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh symphony on 9 August 1942. The information about this event is contained on page 29, and it is very laconic and almost unemotional: before the concert the billposter sized 1.5, placards and concert bills were published, there were announcements on the radio. The performers are: Radio Committee symphony orchestra. The conductor is K. Eliasberg. Shostakovich, the Seventh symphony. Total revenue – 8205 roubles. The house is full – 1046 people.

Evgeny Petrovsky, Deputy Artistic Director, the D. Shostakovich St. Petersburg Academic Philharmonic Hall

The State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg keeps a unique document: the manuscript of Shostakovich’s speech on the Leningrad radio when he mentioned the Seventh Symphony for the first time. This exhibit will be shown in the Philharmonia exhibition which is a part of the project Memory Score.

A sheet of paper, covered in handwriting on both sides, with numerous revisions, reminds us of the first days of the siege – the most horrible period in the city’s history. On 17 September Dmitry Shostakovich spoke on the radio where he had been invited by Olga Bergholz. The composer prepared thoroughly for the broadcast, thinking over his speech and realizing that every word he said should be attuned to the worries and hopes of millions of people locked within the blockade circle.

The exhibit courtesy of the State Museum of St. Petersburg History
The exhibit courtesy of the State Museum of St. Petersburg History

In summer 1941 air raids, blackouts, obstruction air baloons hanging above the city, and firing points became a part of the daily life for Leningrad citizens. People worked to build defence facilitites, learnt how to provide first aid. Shostakovich was a witness and a participant in all this. In July 1941 he became a fire-fighter in the volunteer fire brigade composed of the conservatory faculty members. The famous photo of composer while on duty on the conservatory roof was made on 29 July by Raphail Mazelev. This photo of the Seventh Symphony creator will make it to the cover of the Time magazine in 1942.

On 8 September the siege was completed around the Northern capital. In September the citizens were yet unaware that the city was fully surrounded by the German and Finnish troops. The newspaper editorials were full of slogans calling to defend the city from the enemy. They said, “The enemy is standing at the gate, but there was no official recognition of the blockade. The slogan All for the front, All for victory was more than just words. A lot of people tried to contribute as much as they could: they took the factory workplaces of those who went to the front, joined the local anti-aircraft brigades, raised funds for the army.

On 14 September 1941 the Philharmonic Hall saw the first concert in the besieged city. The Leningradskaya Pravda wrote, “The Grand Philharmonic Hall was overcrowded. The artists enjoyed great success: composer D.Shostakovich, writer E.Schwartz, actors from the Kirov Drama Theatre O.Iordan, V.Legkov, S.Koren, V.Kastorsky.” Later Shostakovich wrote the following about the concert, “I was enthusiastically playing my preludes for the most unusual audience in the most unusual circumstances.” Around that time Olga Bergholz invited Shostakovich to take part in the new radio program “Here is Leningrad speaking!”

The text was most certainly written by the composer in his flat in 29 Kronverkskaya street on the Petrogradskaya Side. Shostakovich wanted to start his speech with these words, “When I walk around the city I have a strong feeling that Leningrad will always be shining on the banks of the Neva, Leningrad will always be the strongest bastion of my Motherland, it will always increase and preserve the cultural heritage.”

The document from the museum is almost a word-for-word script of what was said on air. We have the testimony of Olga Bergholz who describes Shostakovich’s speech in her book “Here is Leningrad speaking”: “An hour ago I finished a two-part score of a large symphonic composition”, began Shostakovich. “If I manage to write this work well, if I manage to finish the third and the fourth movements, then it will be possible to call this work the Seventh symphony. Despite it being wartime, despite the perils our city is facing, I managed to write two parts of the symphony in a very short time. Why am I saying this? I am saying this so the radio listeners might know that life goes on in the city as normal… We are all keeping our watch now. Cultural workers are doing their duty as honestly and courageously as other citizens of Leningrad…

According to Bergholz, the program wasn’t interrupted even by the bombings, which occurred at that time. Concluding his speech the composer said, “Good bye, comrades, in some time I will finish my Seventh symphony. I have a clear mind, and my creative energy unstoppably drives the composition to its end. Then again I will come on the air with my new work, and will be anticipating your friendly but rigorous evaluation. I assure you on behalf of all citizens of Leningrad, workers of culture and arts that we are invincible and we are keeping our watch…

Dmitry Shostakovich found apt words to tell about his rueful emotions and hopes for victory. His speech had colossal resonance. On 22 September 1941 Vera Inber, Leningrad poet and writer, wrote in her diary, “We left Kiev. How dark my soul is. Yesterday there were several air raid alerts. <…> I was excited to hear that in these days, in the besieged city, under bomb shells Shostakovich is writing a symphony. And moreover, the Leningradskaya Pravda puts this information among the news summaries from the Southern front, among the episodes telling about enemy planes and bottles with explosives. It means art is not dead, it is still alive, it is shining and warming out hearts.”

Irina Karpenko, Science Secretary of the State Museum of St. Petersburg History, Candidate of History

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