Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (the Leningrad) starts with the soft, relentless beat of drums. Emanating from an unconventional place on the symphony stage, nestled among the orchestra’s string section, the building percussion suggests not only the approaching assault of the Nazis, but also the war within or amongst us, then and now. The drumbeat takes hold as the heartbeat of the Symphony’s first march-filled movement, an integral part of the work, a sound that cannot be silenced and at the same time, a sound so constant it is not always heard.
I found a recent performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as much a musical allegory today as it was in 1942 when it was first performed, and felt it the other night as equally foreboding, foretelling the same kind of existential crisis Shostakovich’s composition addresses. Think of the steady drumbeat of bad news, the reporting about the scores of, hundreds of, thousands of human lives lost to the violence of wars abroad — roadside bombings, suicide bombers, plane and copter crashes, drone assaults — and the violence of guns at home. The reports repeat themselves with unblinking regularity every night: 11 killed and 28 injured; 24 killed and 143 missing; 6 shot; tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war and nationalistic inhospitality. Sometimes I hear them and gasp; my heart aches. Sometimes, riled by the same horror and disbelief, I mute them, as if in my powerlessness, I take whatever action I can. And yet. What is to be gained from not paying attention?
It’s not as if one can find peace and quiet in ignorance. Except perhaps in childhood, though some older friends now tell me they refuse to watch the news anymore, or to read or listen to reports laden with such strife and enmity. It seems they think they’ve earned the right to die, literally, in peace. But think about that: Do we really want to disengage — and die? There’s an equally disconcerting corollary, however, in the gated communities others build believing they have earned the right to live in peace. But there is no peace when there are 30 gun-related deaths a day in the U.S. (some say 90) and untold horrors unfolding around the globe in a litany of locales like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Crimea, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey, Cuba, Russia. I applaud my children’s decisions to rear their young children in a news-free zone and to limit their exposure to video games. But even the most benign cartoons and video games involve an abhorrent level of violence and our kids must also contend with friends and neighbors and relatives who keep guns in their homes (or, here in Texas, open carry down the street!), so it’s not as if their innocence and joy are assured. And it’s not as if, having survived the assaults on our own innocence and joy for five or six or more decades, we can believe we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Sure, we can cover our ears and hope we’re safe; but if we truly listen to the snare drums in our daily lives, we know our children and grandchildren are not — and that our work is not, and hence our lives are not, done.
This is not a think piece about what we should be doing. I don’t presume to know. It is simply about the example of the Leningrad Symphony I heard that Saturday night — and how Shostakovich orchestrated a way to live creatively into the drumbeat of his time, something I would hope, albeit with radically different — and lesser — talents, I might, too.