In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with Stalin’s USSR, and marched on and besieged Leningrad. Hitler’s plan was to wipe the city from the face of the earth, and he very nearly succeeded. Over the 872 days of the siege, air raids and artillery bombardment reduced the urban area to rubble, while famine, disease and the extreme cold of Russian winters claimed the lives of 1.5m people. Destruction on that scale is impossible to fathom from my safe middle-class 21st century viewpoint, but in The Conductor, a brave fictional web woven around real-life events, Sarah Quigley brings the shocking statistics into sharp relief through the experiences of individuals.
Dmitri Shostakovich is one of Leningrad’s most famous sons. In the throes of writing his seventh symphony, he is a man possessed, and so delays his inevitable evacuation to the relative safety of Siberia for as long as he can. So immersed is he in his work that he sleepwalks through the campaign of German shelling, losing friends and colleagues to the war effort and the declining health of his wife and children as they waste away before his unseeing eyes. His best friend is violinist Nikolai, who lost his wife some years before. Raising his daughter with the help of his spinster sister-in-law, he is forced to make a choice that haunts him, and he finds solace in the music composed by his friend. Finally we have Elias Karlsberg, the second-rate conductor of the third-rate Radio Orchestra, who is plagued by self-doubt as he struggles to keep his elderly mother alive. Shostakovich flees to complete the final movement of the symphony, and after the full score is flown in over enemy lines, Karlsberg and his orchestra are commissioned to perform it for the dying city.
In the music of Shostakovich, the musicians and their conductor find beauty and passion in horrific circumstances. As the winter snows thaw to reveal corpses that have been mutilated for meat, the orchestra of ‘walking cadavers’ battles through personal loss, illness and malnutrition to deliver their performance, broadcast on loud speakers throughout the city and at enemy lines. It is a testament to Quigley’s writing that such themes as the triumph of the human spirit, or a weak man finding inner strength under extreme pressure do not seem trite or hackneyed. This book moved me.