The Power of Language and the Language of Power

If we must die, O let us nobly die,/So that our precious blood may not be shed/In vain

—Claude McKay

In a burst of cultural ambition while in high school, I bought three boxed set classical recordings. Two were operas: Puccini’s La Bohème and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The other was a symphony. I’d never seen a symphony that needed more than one LP, so I had to have that. I didn’t know the composer, but he was Russian, and “modern,” and the cover of the box had a photograph of Leningrad under siege in World War II.

I took to La Bohème immediately. To my chagrin, I couldn’t make headway with Pelléas et Mélisande, but I did “get” the symphony’s insistent sound of jackboots trampling over a suffering land.

Decades passed before I learned that Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (the “Leningrad”) wasn’t held in universally high esteem. By then, I’d begun to explore other Shostakovich works, and I recognized that the criticism of Symphony No. 7 had a point. But I’d also learned more about the story of the symphony’s creation, including its performance in Leningrad in 1942 while the city was under siege.

Shostakovich wasn’t in the city at the time, and the Leningrad Philharmonic’s principal conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, had been evacuated to Siberia. The performance of Symphony No. 7 thus fell to Karl Eliasberg, a conductor of second rank:

Eliasberg found enough musicians alive in the city to augment his orchestra, and musicians were called in from the army to ensure the orchestra was complete to play the mammoth score. Eliasberg, who was suffering as much as his musicians, was a stern taskmaster and expected the best from his skeletal group. “Dear Friends,” Eliasberg said at the first rehearsal, “we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work.” The musicians were emaciated and could hardly play. The first rehearsal lasted just 15 minutes, and Eliasberg fainted on the way home. The rehearsals continued throughout spring and into summer. One of the orchestra members said “sometimes people just fell over onto the floor while they were playing.” And other times they died from an air raid bomb, or starvation.

I had reason to think back on Symphony No. 7 recently, when confronted with a Shakespearean sonnet written in 1919. I knew from my Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course, where I became aware of it, that the poem was important, but prior to learning its place in history, I didn’t grasp why. I understood that the poet’s expert use of the Shakespearean sonnet form was integral to the message he was conveying, but its elevated language and formal composition didn’t “speak” to me when I first read it on the page.

Only when I learned something of the poet’s heritage and the historical circumstances surrounding creation of the poem did I begin to understand its significance. The experience made me wonder whether it was possible to appreciate the poem without that knowledge, so I made an inquiry to classmates for their views.

Among many perceptive responses to my question was one from T., a writer who lives in the Philippines. T. wrote, in part:

As someone living in a country rich with its history of colonization and oppression, it is not a hard reach for me to respond to McKay’s work emotionally without knowing (at first) the context of when/why it was written in the first place. . . . When I read it I am brought back to our very own revolutions, of being called an indio, of how these very same indios fought back only to be ruled by another country, and on and on it goes. The use of the Shakespearian sonnet was also not lost on me, as I myself am now using a language we learned from being colonized, in order to communicate with the rest of the world (and even our national hero taught himself a foreign language so he can write two novels that sparked the revolution, and also hit the colonizers where it hurts—to use language where they will be forced to listen).

I read and re-read T.’s words. I asked myself how I could have missed this, though the answer was clear enough: I am a monolingual-English-speaking citizen of the United States. Although I studied two other languages, I never had need to use them, and none of it stuck. It’s not that I’ve altogether evaded the slings and arrows of misfortune: no one does. But I’ve never had to speak in a language not my own to command respect.

The poet Claude McKay, born in Jamaica of well-to-do farmers, began writing poetry as a young boy. Under his brother’s tutelage, he studied the grand masters of the British poetic tradition. McKay’s own poetry followed suit until Walter Jekyll, an English expatriate, advised him to stop “mimicking the English poets and begin producing verse in Jamaican dialect.” In the preface to McKay’s first published book of poetry, Songs of Jamaica, Jekyll wrote: “Readers of this volume will be interested to know that they here have the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood.” With Jekyll’s preface, the typecasting was complete.

In 1912, using award money he received for Songs of Jamaica, McKay moved to the United States. He wrote his poem If We Must Die in response to the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919. McKay said of the poem:

The World War had ended. But its end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white.

Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spend ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen.

It was during those days that the sonnet, “If We Must Die,” exploded out of me. And for it the Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet. Indeed, that one grand outburst is their sole standard of appraising my poetry. It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew. They were all agitated. Even the fourth waiter – who was the giddiest and most irresponsible of the lot, with all his motives and gestures colored by a strangely acute form of satyriasis – even he actually cried.

Many years after I bought the boxed set recording, I had the chance to hear Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 live. By then I knew its story. As I listened, I was listening not just to the music, but to that terrible history. Whatever its insufficiencies as a piece of music, I realized I could no more listen to that symphony absent its historical referents than I could breathe.

Unlike the musical assessment of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Charles McKay’s If We Must Die is widely recognized as a masterful use of the Shakespearean sonnet form. Yet, like the symphony, the poem’s power is magnified when read in the context of its time—and ours. Now, when I read this poem, I think of those “dreary, ominous nights” of Red Summer rioting, of the fourth waiter’s tears as McKay read the poem, of T.’s eloquent answer to my query, and most of all of McKay, speaking in Shakespeare’s English, and saying this:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

–For T., who taught me so much about this poem.


Listening List

On Spotify, two versions of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 can be found here (Bernstein/NY Philharmonic) and here (Jansons/Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra). On YouTube, the entire symphony, by the Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, can be found here. Also on YouTube, Vladimir Jurowski talks about Symphony No. 7 here.

Readings by McKay of If We Must Die can be found here and here. If it’s possible to ignore the background “music,” an illuminating recording of McKay talking about the poem can be found here.

McKay reading If We Must Die

Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (first movement)


Credits: With grateful thanks to T. for permitting me to use quotations from the response to my query. T. maintains a wonderful poetry site, which you can find here.

The quotation about Eliasberg can be found here. The first quotation from Jekyll can be found here; the second can be found here.  The quotation from McKay about If We Must Die can be found here. The poem If We Must Die can be found here. The photographs at the head of the post and of the LP are mine, both of the boxed set I bought long ago and still possess. The photographs of Shostakovich, Eliasberg, and McKay can be found here, here, and here.

Postscript: William T. Vollmann’s dazzling novel, Europe Central, in which Shostakovich is a central character, and which is the book that spurred me to explore Shostakovich’s music further, can be found here. Sarah Quigley’s novel, The Conductor, a beautifully imagined account of Eliasberg and the circumstances leading up to performance of Symphony No. 7 in Leningrad in 1942, can be found here.

31 thoughts on “The Power of Language and the Language of Power

  1. peculiaritiesandreticences

    Susan- What a terrific post. Shoshtakovich and McKay go so well together.

    As it happens, I went (on a lark) to see the North Carolina Symphony perform Shoshtakovich 7 last Friday night. It was an incredible experience. I didn’t know the piece when I bought the tickets, but quickly learned of the connection to the Siege of Leningrad. I am a World War II history buff as well, and knowing Shoshtakovich was there under the siege while he was composing it made this a powerful experience, to say the least.

    After the performance I had the opportunity to talk with the conductor (Carlos Kalmar) and principal bassist (Leonid Finkelshteyn)- I am a bassist as well. Mr. Finkelshteyn is from Leningrad and studied with musicians who played in the premiere under siege conditions. This is sacred music to him.

    He shared that the Red Army shelled Wehrmacht positions so the premiere could be broadcast over the radio as a symbol of defiance.

    1. peculiaritiesandreticences

      Even my six year old understood what was happening musically listening to the first movement- the happy city of Leningrad, then the insane march of the approaching Wehrmact, then the siege. Brilliant and very moving.

      Hearing the story of Shoshtakovich waiting outside at night for the KGB to take him away (so as not to disturb his family) was in part the inspiration of my poem “Letter,” which I posted the other night (

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        I enjoyed revisiting your poem upon coming back to respond to your second comment and learning of the connection to Ryokan. The story you tell about him in the comments is remarkable, too.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      p&r: Quite a lark! I didn’t know, among your many other talents, that you’re a bassist. Wonderful that you had an opportunity to speak with the conductor and Finkelshteyn. That the Red Army shelled Wehrmacht positions so the premiere could be broadcast is stunning to learn. Thank you so much for sharing what you discovered here.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Alan: Thank you so much for noting your review, which not only further enriches the story of the 7th,but has also introduced this additional dimension about you! I enjoyed this comment from your review particularly: “I found the idea of lobbing music at the enemy completely gripping.” Agreed.

  2. magdalenaball

    Susan, this is so interesting and helpful. “If We Must Die” was one of the few poems in the course I actually didn’t like, but reading it with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 playing in the background (how apt) and with an historical narrative in mind adds a lot of impact and resonance. Thank you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Magdalena: I also found it striking how much the historical context added to my ability to appreciate each of these works (not to mention the education I received from T. and other classmates). I love that you read the poem with the 7th playing in the background!

  3. Hilary

    Hi Susan .. the power of education – you could add here … almost always we do not know of the background of works of art – be they literary, art, music …. and I certainly don’t.

    This is amazing – I’ve made a note … and will over time no doubt refer back to it … and come back to listen to the music.

    This is an incredible post – so well written and giving us all so many facets to think about … I’d just been hearing about black GIs in the War here in England .. completely different circumstances – yet somehow similar …

    I will definitely be back .. and such an interesting storyline you’ve given us here … made me think – that is for sure ..

    Happy Thanksgiving – if that’s appropriate after this posting .. we have so much to be thankful for …… compared to so many – then and now ….. Hilary

  4. Scott

    I like the burst of cultural ambition. I really lament the loss of record shops. Talk about browsing and perusing. I know..double albums. Led Zeppelin. Physical Graffiti. Pink Floyd. The Wall. The artwork. It’s cool you were into classical in high school.
    The story Eliasberg of rounding up folks to play was quite moving. All the devastation and anxiety going on and still the need make music. The human spirit continues to amaze.
    I’m no scholar. Most of my expression and reception is physical in nature. Whether Noguchi, Shostakovich or McKay, I think that they would be glad I looked, listened and felt something.
    Even without knowing about the background of If We Must Die, I find it very motivational. I’m ready to go tear it up on my bike.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Scott: I, too, lament the loss of record shops (not to mention records!). There’s no question in my mind that Noguchi, Shostakovich, McKay, or anyone, would be anything but delighted to have you take a look. I hope you had a fantastic bike ride!

  5. T.


    I never thought I’d see the day when McKay and Shostakovich would be mentioned in one breath, and yet here we are. Your blog is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

    I can imagine how, during that time in 1919, every waking day for all those men was either something they look at as another opportunity to live, or another restless moment, not knowing if it’s their time to die. To me those memories are taut with fear. And yet what exploded out of McKay—the “one grand outburst”—was a rallying cry: dying, but fighting back!.

    It speaks so much of his character: here is a man who will bravely “meet the common foe! / Though far outnumbered.” Here is a man who will use not only words but also language as a weapon, who will use the form as a vehicle in order to deliver what needs to be said. Here is a man who found poetry empowering—and who, empowered, chose the sonnet as his armor.

    Thanks for the background on Shostakovich’s Leningrad. I never knew that there was criticism behind it! I love Shostakovich because I find him quite obsessive with regards to his work—yet he exhibits this sense of vulnerability somehow that I can relate to. I love Symphony No. 7—how it starts with the woodwinds before slowly working up to the ‘march’. Back then I understood it as some sort of gathering courage—or gumption, if you will—as if one is about to face something beyond one’s control.

    Reading everything here—Sue, you’ve given me so much more to go on with this music, and have opened up a new world for me to explore in the coming days. Thank you.


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T: Your comments here add yet more to the power of McKay’s poem. “Here is a man who found poetry empowering—and who, empowered, chose the sonnet as his armor.” I like very much how you’ve described your response to Symphony No. 7, too: “Back then I understood it as some sort of gathering courage—or gumption, if you will—as if one is about to face something beyond one’s control.” Thank you again for the education you’ve given me about McKay’s poem and so much else. I look forward to our continuing conversation!

  6. Mark Kerstetter

    The Vollmann novel looks intriguing…. What a story! -I mean the one about how the symphony was first performed. I had forgotten there was criticism of it – but only from the West, if I’m not mistaken. I experienced a few Shostakovich symphonies live and our Maestro at the time, Stefan Sanderling, who grew up in East Berlin, gave talks beforehand, which absolutely deepened the experience.

    Those who’ve said “brilliant post” are right, it is. Great poems deserve great readers, and you’re a great reader, one of the best I’ve ever come across (not to mention great listener). Complex works, especially ones that incorporate particularities of history and place or ones that involve specific formal considerations (based on chance procedures, for example) demand study. I would not appreciate the McKay poem anywhere near as much if I knew nothing about its context. The beautiful thing is, we can study them over time, and help each other learn. I’m listening to a Czech orchestra on spotify play the 7th while I tap out this response. Next time, if I’ve learned anything, I’ll make a point of learning something new about it.

    On another note: I watched the last MoPo video and, thanks to you, I felt like I was there in spirit. I’m thankful for you, Susan. Have a great holiday!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I like the idea of continually adding to the store of what we learn about a work–and from one another–over time. Certainly I’ve learned an enormous amount from you, and I’ve treasured our many exchanges over the course of the class. Believe me, you were definitely in Philly in spirit. I’m thankful for you, Mark.

  7. Mark Kerstetter

    I was just thinking about the title of your post, how it resonates very clearly with McKay, and also in the different ways it does so with Shostakovich. For the 7th Symphony was a source of strength for the Russian people, so much so that it was used over and over again for nationalistic purposes by despots like Stalin. But this cooptation isn’t unique to totalitarian systems. I doubt there is a single artist whose work could not be made to sell chips, lipstick or cars by our marketing geniuses. As much as I love Thanksgiving, I can’t forget that it is followed by “Black Friday”.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: The 7th is particularly interesting to think about in this regard. Another piece that comes to mind is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, which, the story goes, was co-opted by the powers in service of nationalistic sentiment, nothing to do with Elgar’s original intent.

  8. Rubye Jack

    This reminds me of “we few, we happy few…” in Henry V or Duchamp’s “Fountain” where it’s imperative to know the context for the work.
    Of course I’d never heard of Shostakovic before and as I listen it’s hard for me to imagine a young high school girl listening to such melancholy music but actually if I didn’t know the context for Symphony #7 I probably wouldn’t have thought it so sad but rather found it to be somewhat exhilarating. As you say so well here Susan, the power of language really is bound up in its context.
    So maybe that’s what happened to my musical ear, while you were listening to opera and symphonies I was stuck on the Doors and Three Dog Night.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Rubye Jack: Love that this reminds you both of the speech from Henry V and Duchamp’s Fountain. Certainly imperative to know the context for the latter work! As for the Doors and Three Dog Night, you are not alone, at least as to the Doors, which (for reasons I can no longer understand) were a favorite of mine for a while.

  9. David

    Third time lucky as I try once again to tackle your obstinate wordpress, hoping it won’t disappear me as it has for the past two days.

    When I was trying to say: three cheers for the power of Scheidian connection. McKay’s poem and his reading of it were new to me. Marvellous.

    The Leningrad siege had so many poignant, personal results. I was amazed to see in a St Petersburg (as it by then was again) museum the radio set used to act as the voice of Leningrad in the darkest days, and atop it the metronome which marked time when no-one was manning the station. For one brief stretch of time it stopped – the people prepared to die – and it came back again. What a symbol of endurance.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Shame on WordPress, and I can only give an extra helping of thanks to you for persisting! I’m delighted you enjoyed the McKay poem, especially after all the music, books, and so much else to which you’ve introduced me. (I love the phrase “Scheidian connection,” I confess. I’ll have to work extra hard to live up to that.) Incredible story about the radio set. How horrifying it must have been to hear the silence when the metronome stopped.

  10. Steve Schwartzman

    Some Americans today decry the “Red scares” of the periods after World War I and World War II, but there was good reason to be afraid of and to want to do something about a dictatorship that kept its people enslaved and killed millions of them. Yes, the Russians were heroic in fighting off and defeating the forces of Hitler’s maniacal dictatorship, but look at the “reward” the people got for their hard-earned victory: to continue with another four decades of home-grown totalitarianism, complete with censorship, no freedom to travel even internally, no private property, secret police, gulags, mass starvation, etc. Shostakovich was one of the victims of Stalin’s megalomania.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Shostakovich’s own story is certainly emblematic of those times. I’m reminded, too, of Lembit Beecher’s grandmother’s story of 20th Century Estonia (one of the countries you mention in your follow-up comment), which Beecher so beautifully set in his piece And Then I Remember.

  11. angela

    Susan, please pardon this redundant compliment…brilliant post!
    It’s interesting because McKay’s poem struck me the first read because of the anger, the darkness that pours from his words. It is a poem of great strength, though, and makes me admire the writer who Uses another man’s language to maintain power (if that makes sense). McKay and Knight’s poems are probably two that resonated the most for me from ModPo. (Political/Sociopolitical poems are the ones that move me most in general)

    Backstory on Shostakovich is amazing. I just ventured back from Goodreads to write this thank you for the Vollmann novel information– it has been added ‘to read’.

    Keep blogging, I await another lesson soon. Cheers, ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: isn’t it fascinating what we each bring to our reading of poems (of anything)? I know so well about the “add reads” lists, for I have quite a tall one at the moment. I would really like to read Vollman again, too. If you get to it, it would be fun to compare notes.

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