Seeing how music played a big part in the war, with all the consequences too…Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

Symphony for the city of the dead

So here’s a book I’d never heard anyone talk about before, but when Walker Books offer to send one my way – while it took me a while to decide – I gave it a chance.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, since I’m only just getting into nonfiction and this is over 400 pages, which will have been double the size of my longest nonfiction read so far. But I love learning about history, and so here we are today.


Let’s dive into Symphony for the city of the dead!

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Title: Symphony for the city of the dead

Author: M.T. Anderson

Publisher: Walker Books

Series Status: Standalone

Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography

Number of Pages:  456

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(Found on Goodreads)

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson delivers an 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.

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*Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

As much as I love learning about history, reading books about it can be a bit hit or miss. Especially when they’re as long as this.

Which side was this book on?

Well…both, actually. It was both a hit AND miss.

It took me awhile to get into. Like with most books, I went into this knowing barely what it was about, and somehow missed the fact it was a biography. Not just that, but a biography about a composer. And that was the main reason for this book being half a “miss”.

Don’t get me wrong, I did find reading about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life interesting. But there would be phases in this book where it focused heavily on the effect of symphonies, what they mean to people, how every person takes a different message from them. And as someone who isn’t a music buff at all, quite frankly I just…didn’t care.

And yet, as soon as this book started talking about the war more, I was hooked. It always feels weird to say I “love” reading about history and wars, considering they’re such horrendous stories, but I do. I love learning what happened and the effects of it all. So while the music talk didn’t grab my attention, the war certainly did. I learned how Hitler manipulated Stalin, how the siege of Leningrad happened, how people were forced to eat boiled belts, or even turn to cannibalism. Of course, I expected the war stories to be deeply saddening, but it was even more so just because of how detailed it was.

Plus there’s the photos. All the way through, there’s photos dotted around linking in with the story, showing you a glimpse into people’s family lives, or demonstrating the effects of war, or even showcasing some of the propaganda posters. For me – as someone who isn’t quite used to reading nonfiction yet – it helped bring that humanity back into the book. It’s not just a story, these events actually happened, and we’re reminded so with these photos.

I have to appreciate how well researched this is. In the back, there’s pages upon pages of source notes, listed as a bibliography. And I mean, there’s PAGES of them (and I thought my bibliographies for college were bad, phew). There are even points in the book where the author stops and considers whether we can trust a source or not – which sounds super dull, but it actually fits so well.

“We should be cautious of believing absolutely the testimony of a natural storyteller who claimed that in her infancy, she was nursed by a bear.”

So yes, this book is a very hard balance for me. It seems to switch between storytelling and info-dumping, music centred and war related – and when your interests only lie on one side of that, it’s a fine line between interest and boredom. Luckily, I did actually end up enjoying this book. And while I know nonfiction history books are a hard market for most people, I do implore you to pick up this book even if you have the slightest interest.

No one can sum up this book better than the author already did:

“This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and Capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare. It is the tale of Dimitri Shostakovich and of his beloved city, Leningrad. But at its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings – a story of secret messages and double-speak, and of how music itself is a code: how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying “whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.”

Rated 3/5 stars

3 stars


Comments spoiler warning

Share your thoughts!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

If you haven’t, is it on your TBR?

Are there any nonfiction WWII books you would recommend me? (I’ve already got Night, Hiroshima and The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank!)

Let me know in the comments!

Until next time…

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2 thoughts on “Seeing how music played a big part in the war, with all the consequences too…Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

  1. I do enjoy some non-fiction every now and again… but for some reason this just doesn’t sound like something I’d really be into. I appreciate your honest review!

    Liked by 1 person

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