Musical Icons: A Theological Reflection on Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony

in Religion and the Arts
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This article provides a theological reflection on Shostakovich’s Seventh, or “Leningrad,” Symphony. Investigating the historical context and composer intentions that lie behind the work, together with the now famous story of its premier, performed by starving musicians in the besieged city of Leningrad, the article asks how this secular piece of music might be understood from a perspective of theology. Drawing upon the Russian Orthodox theology mediated by the novels of another Russian artist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, it argues that the symphony takes on the qualities of an icon to embody a kenotic emptying that signifies both suffering and transformation. In so doing, the article aims to further theological engagement with music by pushing the question of how we might think theologically about “secular” music, and also by exploring how we might relate to music’s expressivity and meaning—that is to say, its value as part of human life—within a theological framework.

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