In August 1942, Karl Eliasberg conducted a symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh, in what must rate as the most gruelling concert ever given – for it took place in the city of Leningrad, a city surrounded by Germans and in the midst of a devastating siege which was to last almost 900 days.
Throughout his life, Karl Eliasberg had to be content with second place. From 1937 to 1950 he was the musical director and conductor for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (LRO), the city’s second orchestra behind the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the top conductors of the Soviet era. Mravinsky, considered by Dmitry Shostakovich as his favourite conductor, staged the première of the composer’s fifth symphony. At the start of the Leningrad Siege, Mravinsky and the LPO were evacuated to Siberia where they were to play over 500 concerts and 200 radio broadcasts. Eliasberg and the LRO however were left in the city playing only the occasional concert until the performances ceased altogether.
The Leningrad Symphony
When, in the spring of 1942, Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s man in Leningrad, decided to organise a performance of Shostakovich’s new seventh symphony, the Leningrad, the composer reputedly asked that Mravinsky conduct it. But with Mravinsky and the LPO ill-deposed in Siberia the baton fell to Eliasberg and his LRO.
Eliasberg gathered together his orchestra only to find that out of its one hundred members, only fifteen were still alive. Using musicians from the Red Army, rehearsals began in March 1942, and the Leningrad première was performed to a full house at the Philharmonic Hall on 9 August. Writing later, Eliasberg said, ‘People stood and cried. They knew this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something’.
After the concert Eliasberg married the orchestra’s pianist, Nina Bronnikova.
Eliasberg was declared a hero of the city and much feted. However following the war and the return of Mravinsky and the LPO, Eliasberg and his orchestra were pushed back into second place in the city’s musical pecking order. But Mravinsky was still jealous of Eliasberg’s success and the final indignity came in 1950 when, with Mravinsky’s prompting, Eliasberg was suddenly sacked as the LRO’s conductor.
Eliasberg spent the rest of his career as travelling conductor. He was to play in Leningrad only three more times, each time conducting the Leningrad symphony and each time with a reserve orchestra. In January 1964, Eliasberg was reunited with the twenty-two surviving members of the 1942 orchestra to perform the work in front of its composer. Those who had died in the intervening years had their instruments placed on the chairs they had sat on twenty-two years earlier.
The grief of loss
Afterwards, Eliasberg wrote, ‘These moments do not come often. The glory of fame and the grief of loss, and the thought that maybe the brightest moments of your life have gone.’
Karl Eliasberg died, poor and largely forgotten, on 12 February 1978, and was buried at the back of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. But in 1992, a campaign led by the then Mayor of St Petersberg, restored Eliasberg’s reputation and had his ashes moved to a more honourable place of rest in the Volkovskoye Cemetery. On his new tombstone, is carved a quotation from the score of the Seventh Symphony.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.
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