Film Review: “The War Symphonies”

By Wendell Leafstedt

Larry Weinstein’s 1997 documentary “The War Symphonies: Shostakovich against Stalin” highlights the atrocities committed under Stalin’s regime and their effects on Russian people, specifically composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich’s symphonies communicate the helplessness and terror he felt.

The film includes historical footage of war-torn Russia, Russian soldiers, Russian families and Shostakovich himself. It also includes extensive interviews with friends and relatives of Shostakovich, people who played in his symphonies, music historians and orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev.

Josef Stalin led the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. During his regime, an estimated 30 million people were killed. During these years, Shostakovich wrote Symphonies No. 4 through No. 9. They chronicle his political struggles and difficult living conditions.

Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5 were written before the German invasion of 1941. According to testimonies given in the film, the applause after the premiere of Symphony No. 5 in Leningrad lasted for half an hour. Many among the listeners had recently lost friends and family in systematic executions by Stalin. They felt that Shostakovich’s work represented their struggles.

“The War Symphonies” shows interviews with people who performed in the debut of Symphony No. 7, often called Shostakovich’s darkest and most important piece. Those fortunate enough to play their instruments recall being surrounded by empty seats that belonged to musicians who died of starvation.

Symphonies No. 8 and No. 9 are sarcastically light in tone — Shostakovich felt that while the worst times of war were over, people should not forget what Stalin had done. Even after Stalin died, Shostakovich wrote several smaller critical compositions.

Weinstein succeeds in balancing emotional and factual appeals. It would have been easy for him to use tragic stories of victims and gripping testimonies of survivors to smother facts and gloss over inaccuracies. Rather, he presents facts and leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Anyone interested in learning more is recommended to watch “The War Symphonies: Shostakovich against Stalin” in full. It can be found on YouTube. Be warned: the film contains graphic footage of executions and other disturbing images.

The Lawrence University Symphony Orchestra is preparing Symphony No. 5 for their upcoming concert on Saturday, Nov. 14. Hopefully, historically-informed performers and audience members will make for a powerful performance.