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A Testament to the Human Spirit and to the Power of Music
on 10 July 2012
Sarah Quigley's 'The Conductor' is a rather remarkable novel, combining fact with fiction, set during the siege of Leningrad which begins in 1941. The story follows three main characters: the composer, Shostakovich, the conductor, Karl Eliasberg, and a fictional character, a musician, Nikolai Nikolayev. As Nazi troops surround the city of Leningrad with the intention of bombarding and then starving the city into submission, many of the cultural elite is evacuated, but Shostakovich decides to stay and fight by using his own brand of courage and musical genius. In the midst of the Nazi aerial and artillery attacks, he uses this genius in the composition of the 'Leningrad Symphony', a defiant and haunting new piece, which will be relayed by loudspeakers to the front line to lift the spirits and to harden the determination of the citizens of Leningrad.
The conductor of the symphony is Karl Eliasberg, a driven individual who manages to create an orchestra out of the musicians who have been able to survive despite the starvation and the terrible conditions imposed upon them. During one of the coldest winters ever, whilst the death toll rises, the musicians struggle to cope with week after week of rehearsals, barely strong enough to hold their instruments, some dropping to the floor through hunger and exhaustion. As time goes on they, and we, begin to wonder whether these brave musicians will actually survive to see the day of the concert.
This is a challenging story to tell, but Sarah Quigley has researched her subject well and through some wonderful writing has created a remarkable story of a city that is brought to its knees but will not surrender. Without undue sentimentality, the author conveys to the reader the atmosphere of Leningrad during the grip of a brutal and punishing winter, where the citizens are reduced to eating boiled shoe leather to survive and are forced to watch whilst weaker members of their family slowly starve and freeze to death. A testament to the human spirit and to the power of music, this is a heart-rending and affecting story, and one that ultimately impresses and inspires.