I’ve been feeling really discouraged lately—like, really discouraged. While struggling to move forward, I was quietly reminded of this true story. It is—quite frankly—one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard.
It was the summer of 1941, and the Nazis were rapidly tearing through Russia, destroying everything in their path. Adolph Hitler had pompously declared that by August 9, 1942, Nazis would celebrate the taking of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg).
On September 8, 1941, the Nazis surrounded the city of Leningrad, forming a blockade.
The city’s almost 3 million civilians (including about 400,000 children) refused to surrender and endured rapidly increasing hardships in the encircled city. Food and fuel stocks were limited to a mere 1-2 month supply, public transport was not operational and by the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942 in the depths of an unusually cold winter, the city’s food rations reached an all time low of only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per person per day. In just two months, January and February of 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation. Despite these tragic losses and the inhuman conditions the city’s war industries still continued to work and the city did not surrender. [Source: Saint-Petersburg.com]
By the end of the siege, the number of deaths in Leningrad outnumbered those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.
Under these conditions, in the midst of what would become an 872-day siege, the Symphony of Leningrad planned a “counter-offense.” They resolved to perform the newly-completed Seventh Symphony of Dmitry Shostakovich, a native of Leningrad, and broadcast it on loudspeakers throughout the city, towards enemy lines.
The score—both long and complex—called for a 90 piece orchestra, and only half of the members of the symphony at Leningrad had survived the horrors of the siege.
Despite extra rations, many members of the symphony would faint from exhaustion during rehearsals. They all had strength enough to play through the whole piece only once—three days before their big performance.
Their performance was set for August 9, 1942. It was no coincidence that August 9th was also the date set by Hitler to celebrate the capture of Leningrad.
The Philharmonic Hall was packed – people came in their finest clothes; city leaders and generals took their places. The musicians, despite the warm August temperature, wore coats and mittens – when the body is starving, it is continually cold. Outside, throughout the city, people gathered to listen at loudspeakers. Hours earlier, Leonid Govorov, Leningrad’s military commander since April 1942, ordered a barrage of artillery onto the German lines to ensure their silence for long enough time for the work to be performed without interruption. Loudspeakers, on full volume, pointed in the direction of the Germans – the city wanted the enemy to hear.
‘This performance,’ announced Eliasberg in a pre-recorded introduction, ‘is witness to our spirit, our courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!’ And the city listened, as did the Germans nearby. They listened as the city of Leningrad reasserted its moral self.
At the end – silence. Then came the applause, a thunderous applause that lasted over an hour. People cheered and cried. They knew they had witnessed a momentous occasion. It was, as Eliasberg described later, the moment ‘we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’…
…Years after the war, Eliasberg met some Germans who had been sitting encamped in their trenches outside the city. On hearing the music, they told the conductor, they had burst into tears, ‘Who are we bombing?’ they asked themselves, ‘We will never be able to take Leningrad because the people here are selfless.’ [Source: History in a Minute]
When I get really discouraged, I often think about this symphony of Leningrad. They were starving, dying, and surrounded by forces that wanted to destroy them. And yet, in the face of such evil, they found within themselves the strength to play music. And their music was a force that turned the tide of the war.
So, if you’re feeling discouraged and defeated—don’t quit. Play on, hope on, and move forward. Just like the symphony at Leningrad, the music you play—even in the midst of incredible darkness—can and will turn the tide of your own battles.