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the story behind the book | kate tuttle

Leningrad and the music that saved it

david wilson for boston globe

M.T. Anderson is a veteran author of books for children and young adults (his “The Pox Party” won the National Book Award in 2006). But he called his newest book “a total departure.” In “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad,” Anderson tells the story of the Russian composer and his most legendary work, a symphony credited with strengthening the resolve of a city and a people brought to despair by the Nazis during World War II.

Researching the subject was an education in itself, Anderson said. “I had heard, in passing, stories about this symphony,” he recalled. “I heard it had been performed in the city by this orchestra of emaciated, starving people, and that it had been broadcast along no man’s land, over the German trenches.”


What he found was a story of loss and desperation. “The Russian story is incredible,” Anderson said, “and it really changes our sense of the war’’ as the number of Soviets believed to have died during the blockade approximately equals the number of American military deaths in all US wars. Surrounded by German troops, the people of Leningrad endured “the longest siege in recorded history,” he went on. “Every day thousands of people died of starvation. There was cannibalism in the city. People were eating the dead. All the windows had been blown out in bombing raids.”

In this horrific setting, Shostakovich’s heroic symphony spoke powerfully to listeners. “Years later,” Anderson said, “German soldiers approached the conductor of that concert and they said to him, ‘We were actually there in the German trenches the night of that performance. We heard the symphony. And that was the night we knew we would never take the city of Leningrad.’ ”

Anderson will read 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Porter Square Books.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.