A 2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist
National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson delivers a brilliant and riveting account of the Siege of Leningrad and the role played by Russian composer Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony.
In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.
This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a masterwork thrillingly told and impeccably researched by National Book Award–winning author M. T. Anderson.
About the Author
M. T. Anderson is an accomplished author of a wide range of titles, including works of fantasy and satire, for readers of various ages. He studied English literature at Harvard University and Cambridge University and went on to receive his MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University.
M. T. Anderson is known for challenging readers to look at the world in new ways. “We write because we can’t decipher things the first time around,” he says. His previous books include Thirsty, a vampire novel; Burger Wuss, a revenge story set in a fast-food emporium; and Feed, a futuristic satirical novel widely lauded as one of the most important and pioneering works of the recent dystopian craze. A finalist for the National Book Award, Feed received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize or YA fiction in 2003 and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor.
The author’s passion for history and classical music were inspirations for his sophisticated and much-lauded epic The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,Volume I: The Pox Party, a National Book Award Winner, and Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. The two novels, both Michael L. Printz Honor recipients, trace the story of a fictional slave in pre–Revolutionary War Boston — a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty, while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim.
M. T. Anderson’s work may be best known for its sophisticated wit and storylines, highlighting his belief that young people are more intelligent than some might think. When asked why he gives so much credit to his young audience, Anderson says that “Our survival as a nation rests upon the willingness of the young to become excited and engaged by new ideas we never considered as adults.”
M. T. Anderson was an instructor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he now serves as a board member. From 2003–2012, he also served on the board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a national nonprofit organization that advocates or literacy, literature, and libraries. He has published stories for adults in literary journals such as the Northwest Review, the Colorado Review, and Conjunctions. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I never knew what the Soviet Union went through around WWII. This was almost like an apocalyptic read, with all the horrors they lived. And the kicker is that it’s true.
Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T Anderson is an inspiring true story about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer during Stalin’s Great Terror and Hitler’s siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich was born in Leningrad, Russia, which at the time of his birth was called St. Petersburg. (It’s called St. Petersburg again in present day) Shostakovich showed a penchant for music even at a young age. When Shostakovich was born, the last tsar of Russia was ruling. As a child, he was tutored in piano. When he was still very young, the tsar was overthrown and it seemed as though a revolution was beginning. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party, was one of the parties vying for control of the government. The Bolshevik party knew that they would not win control by votes, so they launched an attack on the palace and seized power through force. But, in 1924, Lenin died. A communist known as Josef Stalin quickly seized power, and his enemies vanished. Stalin began something known as his Five Year Plan. Around 6 million countryside peasants died at the beginning of this plan. At first, Stalin’s rule didn’t affect Shostakovich at all, but soon his music began to get very popular. And it wasn’t a good thing to be popular during Stalin’s rule. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T Anderson is an amazing book. It’s filled with tales of human atrocity and contrasting human greatness and sacrifice. I was deeply moved by this story and give it a 5 star rating. It is very well written and has so much detail that you felt so much empathy for the people of Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a wonderful biography of the life of the great composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Review by Stephanie M., 12, Cleveland Area Mensa
"We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth." In September 1941, Hitler's forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country's capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg). So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on. In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazi's and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need. The symphony would speak when the people feared to, it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich's symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the compose who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them in Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) by M.T. Anderson. Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. Symphony for the City of the Dead begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich's symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue the book is framed around Shostakovich's own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the communist revolution and explores the composer's complicated relationships with his country and the Communist Party. Symphony for the City of the Dead includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes in the backmatter detailing Anderson's sources throughout the novel. Strangely, for such an iconic figure, little is known as fact about Shostakovich's life. Anderson is careful to couch his own thoughts in research and supporting documentation while also noting when the narrative veers into supposition. The book also offers a thorough and detailed accounts of the movements that led to the Siege of Leningrad ranging from Stalin's wild incompetence and paranoia to Hitler's Wermacht strategy. Because of the content and the level of research involved, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a dense book. The material gains a more narrative quality after the first hundred pages but it takes a while to really dig into the material. Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story--especially the power of art and music--as well as thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling.