Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. AndersonSymphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press on September 22, 2015
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Historical, History, Juvenile Nonfiction, Military & Wars, Music
Pages: 464
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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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 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 1943–1944. 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.

For a music history class in college, I wrote a research paper (admittedly a little too ambitious as an undergrad) exploring the effects of Stalin’s regime on Dmitri Shostakovich’s composition of his Symphony No. 5. It was the first time I’d considered music as a force in and of itself, with real implications that could move outside of the concert hall and affect the community in very real ways. This is exactly what M. T. Anderson explores in Symphony for the City of the Dead, focusing on a Shostakovich work that came a few years later: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad.”

My favorite passage, which refers to the theme you hear in the video above:

A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience. The wartime audience heard the approach of the German Wehrmacht. A more recent post-Soviet audience wants to hear the cruel antics of Stalin and believe that Shostakovich was speaking in code.

But Shostakovich himself does not seem to have restricted the meaning of the piece, hearing in it instead an abstract depiction of all of those petty, ugly things which grow disastrously within us and lead us all in a dance of destruction.

Written for ages 14 and up, this is a perfect example of a “living book,” to coin a Charlotte Mason term—a book that “touches the emotions and fires the imagination, making it easy to see in your mind’s eye the events that are being described.” Anderson’s passion for his topic jumps off the page; this story feels personal.

Chock full of photographs, maps, and primary source material, Symphony for the City of the Dead is incredibly detailed and thorough. Facts are seamlessly (read: painlessly) incorporated into a narrative that is riveting from cover to finish.


  • This was such a fascinating story, and I’m ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about it before and very little about Shostakovich except that he was a composer in Soviet Russia. An amazing testament to the power of art.

  • I know absolutely nothing about this, but I totally want to now. This sounds pretty amazing!