Author M.T. Anderson Speaks On Music And Hope

by Jennifer Sexton-Riley
Author M.T. Anderson. Author M.T. Anderson.

BREWSTER – On Saturday, May 18 at 3:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center in Brewster, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the National Book Award, Newbery Honor and Los Angeles Times Book Prize M. T. Anderson will present the account of the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, written during the siege of Leningrad during World War II, a powerful story of hope in tempestuous times. This in-person and livestreamed event is part of the Performing Arts Center’s free Arts and Entertainment Lecture Series.

Soviet composer Shostakovich, who was trapped inside Leningrad during the siege of World War II, wrote his Seventh Symphony as an act of defiance while serving as a roof-top fireman watching for incendiary bombs. Incredibly, it was performed by a starving orchestra, bringing hope, lifting spirits and sparking the desire to live and thrive again to a desperate city in tempestuous times.

Anderson said that he would like audiences to know that he will present an intense story that involves life on the edge, life lived under extreme circumstances and even deep tragedy, but that really, this is a story of hope despite all of that.

“I want people to come out of the talk with a sense that music can change their lives, too, because it shows us all that we're not alone, however bleak things may seem,” Anderson said.

Anderson has loved Shostakovich's music since he was a teenager and explained that it's full of a lot of angst and so it's easy for a teen to love. At some point many years ago, he heard the story that during World War II, Shostakovich had written his Seventh Symphony while trapped in the city of Leningrad, describing the war he saw going on all around him.

“I learned that it had been put onto microfilm, smuggled out to Tehran in the Middle East, driven across the desert to Cairo, then flown to South America and finally North America so that it could be performed here in the U.S. in an attempt to get Americans involved in the Russian cause,” Anderson said. “That blew my mind. It sounded like the plot of a spy novel. But the microfilm didn't have the plans of some nuclear sub on it, it was the score of a symphony. That fascinated me.”

Years later, Anderson said, probably while reading the concert notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra or something similar, he found himself thinking once again about the story and realizing that it would make a great book.

“It involves all the great human passions, all the power of suffering and redemption through art, a story of survival and creativity and ingenuity — all the stuff of great drama,” Anderson said. “So I decided to make a book out of it! I decided to do it as nonfiction because it was such an odd and extreme story that nobody would believe it, if it were fiction.”

The resulting book, “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad” (2015) was originally intended for teens, though Anderson said the book is also popular with readers who were born during World War II.

As he researched the books, Anderson discovered that nobody had ever written an academic article about the microfilm voyage of the symphony to the USA. He ended up inadvertently making a contribution to Shostakovich studies in the form of two academic articles, one about the logistics of the microfilm transfer — Who ordered it? Who arranged it? Why did it go so wrong? Was it effective? — and another article about the attempts by Hollywood to make a propaganda movie out of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony.

“Believe it or not, William Faulkner wrote a script for a movie about Shostakovich and this piece,” Anderson said. “It's terrible. It would have been directed by Howard Hawkes, the famous director of screwball romantic comedies. Luckily, it was never made.”

Anderson said that music has always been important to him.

“Music can speak about our troubles on a level deeper than language. It can help us grieve, just as it can help us celebrate,” Anderson said. “I love the idea that we can feel something so deep within us, that speaks to us on such a profound level, but that is nothing but sounds in the air. Music (made) by large numbers of people is kind of the image of the perfect society: everyone playing their own role, and yet by all of us singing those different parts at once, we fuse into something larger than all of us, better than any of us.”

This will be an excellent presentation for anyone, particularly teenagers studying history, english, or music, he said. The free event is sponsored by The Charles Wentz Carter Memorial Foundation.

For more information about this and future events offered as part of the Performing Arts Center’s free Arts and Entertainment Lecture Series, visit The Performing Arts Center is located at 95 Southern Eagle Cartway in Brewster.