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