Grace Notes: Shostakovich and a Seed Vault in Svalbard

You may wonder what a Russian composer and a scientific storehouse to prevent loss of seed types in a global crisis have in common.  Quite a lot in fact!

Yesterday, my Dad phoned and told me that he had heard an interesting episode of ‘The Food Program’ on BBC Radio 4.  This episode was about an upcoming documentary called ‘The Grain Divide’, about how the relationship between wheat and people has changed, and what this may hold for us in the future. There was a particular  section of this that especially interested me. It was about Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is on the Norwegian island  of Spitsbergen and was built about 7 years ago. There are three giant vaults filled with millions of seed types from all over the world, in an attempt to insure against the loss of seeds and food types in a global crisis.


The Svalbard Seed Vault (I do not own this image)

Following on from this, one story caught my attention. It was about Nikolai Vavilov’s seed bank in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). On the 8th September 1941 the last road to Leningrad was severed by the German Army  and the siege of Leningrad began. Many things of national importance, such as the works of art and some musicians were evacuated, but the seed bank was not. A group of scientists working with Vavilov, boxed up a representative sample  of this collection of 250,000 samples of seeds, roots and fruits, and protected it for the entirety of the siege, believing that once the siege ended it would be one of the only  ways to help the city start up again. They refused to eat any of the contents of it, meaning that by the end of the siege in 1944, nine of the guards had died of starvation. One, who was in charge of the rice store, was found at his desk, having died of starvation, surrounded by bags of rice he hadn’t cooked and eaten to save himself. Vavilov also wasn’t very fortunate and through repeatedly insulting a biologist that earned the respect of Stalin he found himself with a prison sentence for 20 years, but ended up dying of starvation in 1943. His seed bank is now stored in the Institute of Plant Industry in St Petersburg.

This got me thinking about the siege of Leningrad, and I immediately jumped to Shostakovich (who I’m sure I’ve already mentioned is my favourite composer) and his 7th Symphony. I played this with my county orchestra a few years ago and it stuck with me due to the exciting music with so much history attached.

Shostakovich lived in Leningrad and was there for the first few weeks of the siege, where he wrote most of the first three movements of his 7th symphony, and completed it in December 1941. The world premier was in the Kuibyshev with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, but the premier in Leningrad was something different altogether. On 9th August 1942 (the day Hitler said the city would fall) the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, (supplemented with survivors from the city and musicians drafted in from the military) performed Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (nicknamed ‘Leningrad’ and dedicated to the city) to a full house at the Grand Philharmonia Hall. The people who didn’t fit in, and the soldiers on duty listened through loudspeakers and on radios. This performance was encouraged by politicians as it was seen as a morale boost to citizens and soldiers.


The Grand Philharmonia Hall as it looks today (I do not own this image)

The Leningrad Radio Orchestra was the only orchestra left in the city after the evacuation, but due to the large number of deaths in the city (mostly starvation, freezing temperatures or fighting) there were only 14 or 15 members left. Shostakovich had scored the piece for 100 players, so the organisers went to personally seek out the people who hadn’t responded due to weakness caused by starvation and illness. It is said that lots of the musicians had a new rush for life at the chance to play again, and rehearsals started when the scare had been airlifted in with supplies.

The first rehearsal in March 1942, was scheduled for three hours, but had to be stopped after 15 minutes because all 30 musicians who were there,  were too weak to play. The conductor Eliasberg was so unwell that he could barely conduct, had to be dragged to the rehearsal venue on a sledge and was eventually moved to live closer.  To combat starvation, players were given extra rations, and hot bricks were used to heat the rooms, but three players still died during rehearsals. Posters went up and people were called in to play from all over the city to supplement the orchestra.

They rehearsed from 10-1, six days a week, but often were interrupted by air raid sirens. Before the performance, there was only one complete run of the symphony on 6th August. In order to hide the shivering caused by starvation, the musicians were bundled up in lots of layers (like ‘cabbages’). When they felt they couldn’t continue playing due to exhaustion, the audience stood up to spur them on. The performance ended with an hour long standing ovation. Even a German General, sat in the trenches heard the broadcast and later said ‘When it finished I realized that never ever shall we be able to enter Leningrad. It is not a city that can be conquered’.

(I do not own this piece)

Seeing stories like this make me realise how lucky we are now. When I go  to rehearsals there aren’t people missing because they missed one too many meals. We don’t have to cover up our shivering from audiences. We don’t have to heat our halls with bricks in order to survive.

For the past week we have been celebration Winston Churchill’s leadership in our country during the Second World War. However, we also need to remember that the war was also won by the courage of ordinary citizens trying their best to carry on in horrific circumstances, like the botanists and musicians of Leningrad.


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