The Siege of Leningrad. Hitler, like Napoleon before him, expected Russia's large cities to last under siege a couple weeks. The Siege of Leningrad lasted 873 days, 1,600,000 killed, mostly either from starvation or cold, but also from saturation bombing every night. Every resident lived on a ration of 5 grams of bread a day, bread composed 50% of sawdust. People would simply keel over dead in the streets and street sweepers would collect the bodies to be piled onto a truck, where drivers would simply take them to be thrown into mass graves. Into this ravenous cauldron of fire, what production becomes remotely possible?
And yet an orchestra of half-dead musicians emerged. Every orchestra in Leningrad had already been disbanded except the Leningrad Radio Symphony, but with typical Soviet incompetence, once the Radio Symphony was called to be reconstituted, officials found that all but 15 musicians were either dead or drafted as soldiers. The Leningrad Radio Committee ordered every musician to present themselves before them so that a basically new Leningrad Radio Symphony could be formed. The musicians were so thin that the officials wondered how these musicians would be able to pick up their instruments.
The officials of the Radio Committee ordered the conductor Carl Eliasberg to retrain this orchestra until they were sufficiently prepared to tackle a stentorian seventy-minute work of Soviet modernism. In the face of such a daunting challenge, the musicians rebelled, saying that the work might kill them, Eliasberg, possibly under orders from his Radio Committee superiors, threatened to withhold their 'extra' rations.
When Shostakovich 7 received its Leningrad premiere in August 1942, the Soviet government in Leningrad installed speakers all throughout the city so that Leningraders could hear the music in the streets and in their homes. The Soviet general defending Leningrad against the siege ordered Nazi tanks bombarded the night before so that Nazis' current enforcements of artillery would be sufficiently decimated to remain quiet during the Symphony's premiere. Speakers were installed outside of Leningrad so that German soldiers too could hear the music in the hope that their resolve might weaken.
Russians, always known for being a bit extravagant emotionally, were said to have wept in the streets by the hundreds of thousands. More than fifty years later, Stephen Johnson, the British musicologist, asked old Soviet friends if Shostakovich 7 still had the impact it once had on them, whereupon both husband and wife both spontaneously broke down into tears yet again.
I guess it's no secret that while there's plenty of popular music I love, I have deep reservations about it. I've tried to figure out how to articulate them for years. My reservations have nothing to do with 'low' art versus 'high' art. I once founded a chorus/a capella group that was meant to obliterate the distinction between classical and popular music and do both in equal measure. At the time, I certainly believed in what I was doing. There is plenty of classical music that is clearly meant as popular entertainment and there's plenty of popular music that has the depth of meaning we expect from the deepest most serious art. And just because it's art does not mean it's worth examining: there is plenty of art out there that is, to put it simply: boring art.
My reservations ultimately come down to this: The crises of the 20th century are so far removed from American popular experience that, until 2020 at least, so many facets of American life seem so blissfully ignorant of what life is like for the vast majority of humans. You sometimes get a sense of that journey through the other side of suffering in African-American music, but in moments of true crisis, I've personally always found it exceedingly hard to locate popular music that contains the enormity of catharsis I was looking for. I've played popular music for decades, there are isolated musicians for whom I have a love that is pretty uncomplicated: Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Sufjan Stevens, Randy Newman, Billie Holiday, John Darnelle, Woody Guthrie, and yeah... The Beatles too, and even Frank Sinatra. But no, it's not the center of my musical outlook.
But I have a strange intimation. People do not return to the contemplation of art unless they truly need it, and need it now we absolutely do. So as Americans finally begin to learn how easily it can all crash down, these dark dark days for the arts when 2/3rds of American artists are unemployed, a number that will only grow for a while, artists may find that they have to locate within themselves something that howls with painful ecstasy they never thought they had in them, and audiences may finally be ready to listen.
The moniker of the 'suffering artist' has done all sorts of damage to artists, which is routinely used as an excuse to deny artists fair pay, fair benefits, and for powerful artists to abuse the young artists who depend on them. And yet.... life is a deeply tragic, brutally realistic thing. We will never be without suffering: decline, destruction, and death are all part of the life cycle. The new can only be born with the decline of the old. We now live in the era of coronavirus which puts that truth of life to ample display. Whenever all this ends, life will resume, it goes on, but it will be so utterly different from how it has been so far, and, perhaps tragically, with a very different cast of characters occupying the space between the world's proscenium arches. Such is the cycle of life, which requires not only death of us, but sometimes very brutal ends.