Read The Conductor by Sarah Quigley Online


June 1941: Nazi troops surround the city of Leningrad, planning to shell and starve the people into submission. Most of the cultural elite is evacuated, but the famous composer Shostakovich stays behind to defend his city. That winter, the bleakest in Russian history, the Party orders Karl Eliasberg, the shy, difficult conductor of a second-rate orchestra, to prepare for tJune 1941: Nazi troops surround the city of Leningrad, planning to shell and starve the people into submission. Most of the cultural elite is evacuated, but the famous composer Shostakovich stays behind to defend his city. That winter, the bleakest in Russian history, the Party orders Karl Eliasberg, the shy, difficult conductor of a second-rate orchestra, to prepare for the task of a lifetime. He is to conduct a performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony - a haunting, defiant new piece, which will be relayed by loudspeakers to the front lines. Eliasberg's musicians are starving, and scarcely have the strength to carry their instruments. But for five freezing months the conductor stubbornly drives on his musicians, depriving those who falter of their bread rations. Slowly the music begins to dissolve the nagging hunger, the exploding streets, the slow deaths... but at what cost? Eliasberg's relationships are strained, obsession takes hold, and his orchestra is growing weaker. Now, it's a struggle not just to perform but to stay alive....

Title : The Conductor
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9781908800824
Format Type : ebook
Number of Pages : 304 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Conductor Reviews

  • Marita
    2019-06-09 05:57

    It is not often that I read about the wars of the 20th century, but I loved this novel about the creation and performance of Shostakovich's seventh symphony, The Leningrad. It was composed during the terrible siege of Leningrad, and finally performed by the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra conducted by Karl Eliasberg on the 9th August 1942 as both an act of defiance by the beleaguered city and a morale booster for its survivors.The story is told from several points of view, namely that of the master, Dmitri Shostovich himself, his wife Nina Varzar, the conductor Karl Eliasberg, violinist Nikolai Nikolayev, his daughter Sonya and Nina Bronnikova, a ballet dancer at the Kirov.Dmitri Shostakovich:He loves his wife and children, but he is absolutely single-minded about his work and has no qualms about staying in Leningrad rather than fleeing to safety with his family. He frequently barricades himself into a room to work on his composition. "In despair, he laid his head on the pile. When would life stop getting in the way of music?" Not even a bomb can divert him from his work: "‘Nina!’ he called sharply. ‘Take the children to the cellar.’ He returned to his desk. Even before the drone of the planes began, he stuffed cotton wool in his ears and picked up his pen." He has an ascerbic sense of humour and he is totally uncompromising: "I’m sorry if it’s difficult to play, but there’s nothing I can do about it. High G, pianissimo, end of argument.’" Nina Varzar:Beautiful and gracious, Nina has to cope with the frustrations of being married to a genius.Karl Eliasberg:A very interesting character, our Karl. Not only from a disadvantaged background, but Karl also suffered from tuberculosis in his youth and was determined to overcome it, which he obviously did. Although he has a lot of strength of character, he suffers from severe lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy. He feels alone and isolated from the rest of humanity: "Standing on the podium was like facing the world alone, which was, after all, what he was used to." As the situation in Leningrad becomes more dire, so Eliasberg becomes more confident and discovers reserves of strength that he didn't know he had. His colleagues say of him: "As regular as a Swiss metronome and twice as reliable." Nikolai Nikolayev:He is a friend of Dmitri's and a great violinist. This is how Shostakovich sees him: "‘Nikolai’s an admirable musician. He’s greatly talented, both as a violinist and a teacher. But he expends too much energy on making other people feel good.’" But Nikolayev must face and overcome great sorrow.Sonya:Sonya is Nickolayev's nine year old daughter, and shows great promise as a cellist. What lies in store for her?Nina Bronnikova:I'll leave you to discover gorgeous Nina the ballerina yourself.There are also various minor characters such as the obnoxious oboist: "You will die as you’ve lived — a mediocre musician, and an arsehole of the first degree. In that, at least, you excel.’"And yes, I listened to the Leningrad symphony whilst reading this. I also cried.

  • Bill
    2019-05-27 01:06

    This is an absolutely wonderful novel about the siege of Leningrad and the great Russian composer Shostakovich, who composed most of his seventh symphony while the city was under siege, which was finally performed as a symbol that Russia would never give in.It's a very harrowing read, as the details of the siege are quite graphically told, with German bombs and shells falling and killing many people, the city in ruins, and what really got to me, the horrible details of the hunger and starvation, with almost no food, and people eating dogs, cats, rats and even human flesh. They even ate leather. It almost made me feel guilty, to think that I have never experienced hunger, not even for one day, really. It makes me ever so grateful that I have managed to never have to participate in a war of any kind.Anyway, if you like historical fiction or even just a really good story, I can highly recommend this book.

  • Susan
    2019-05-29 03:23

    This is a very moving and memorable novel, which begins in the Spring of 1941 with rumours of war with Germany and ends during the siege of Leningrad. The book involves many characters, including Shostakovich, ignoring warnings and trying to get his Seventh Symphony on paper, his friend Nikolai and his beloved daughter Sonya and Karl Illyich Eliasberg, the conductor of the title. Eliasberg conducts the rather second rate Radio Orchestra, while the conductor Mravinsky and the Philharmonic are Shostakovich's chosen musicians. Yet, as war comes closer, much of the musical elite of Leningrad are evacuated and Eliasberg finds himself left to conduct the "cultural backbone" of the city.It is hard not to emphasise with Eliasberg, who is finally given the chance to achieve greatness under impossible odds. When he finally writes, "orchestra can no longer work" in the official logbook, it seems that his musical life is over. Then the orchestra is ordered to reform and perform the Seventh Symmphony to raise morale. Yet half the musicians are dead and the rest starving. Profoundly moving and wonderfully realised, this is a very well written and interesting book. If you want to know more about the real life events the novel is based on you might enjoy Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich.

  • Lisa
    2019-06-04 01:23

    My interest in Sarah Quigley’s fourth novel, The Conductor, was piqued when I read its description amongst the titles listed in the IMPAC longlist. It’s the story of how the 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony came to be composed by Shostakovich and then broadcast on August 9th 1942 by a raggle-taggle orchestra during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.It’s well-written historical fiction, shedding light on the interior lives of three main historical figures: composer Dmitri Shostakovich; the conductor of the Radio Orchestra Karl Eliasberg; and the musician Nikolai Nikolayev. The story begins with the rumours that Hitler might be about to renege on the pact he had with Stalin, when life among the cultural elite is a mélange of backstabbing jealousies and gossip and Eliasberg is only on the fringes because a radio orchestra is not in the same league as the Philharmonic led by the great Mravinsky.With the outbreak of war civilians are enlisted to erect defensive measures and there is the rush to enlist. The Philharmonic is evacuated to Siberia while Shostakovich takes up fire-watching duties by night while trying to compose by day. Quigley’s portrait of a creative, driven soul trying to find solitude to in order to compose is heart-wrenching; he is always torn between the urgent need to record the scraps of music in his brain and the need to be there for his family. He has two irrepressible children and a long-suffering irritable wife and his position as an eminent musician means that unlike most citizens of the city, when conditions deteriorate further, he is offered evacuation. He has to choose between loyalty to his city, serving it both creative and practical ways, and loyalty to his family and his obligation to protect them.To read the rest of my review please visit

  • Fiona
    2019-06-02 05:23

    I bought this to read on my way to St Petersburg and because I had enjoyed Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time. I just couldn't get into it though. If it makes sense, it was too fictionalised for me. The conversation seemed banal at times and although I was interested in a couple of the characters, I didn't much care for them. Back on the shelf. Maybe I'll manage to finish it one day.

  • Debbie
    2019-06-01 02:17

    This story takes place in Leningrad between the spring of 1941 and the summer of 1942 and is based on a true historical event. In the autumn of 1942 the Nazis began the siege of Leningrad as they attempted to starve and bomb the city into submission. The important musicians living in the city were evacuated by the Russian government, but Dimitri Shostakovich chose to stay and during this time he composed his Seventh Symphony, also known as the Leningrad Symphony.In the summer of 1942 Russian officials in Leningrad ordered that Shostakovich's symphony would be played in an attempt to boost the morale of the citizens who had managed to survive a gruelling winter with almost no food and no fuel for warmth. As the pre-eminent Leningrad orchestra and conductor had been safely removed from the city, the task of playing this symphony fell to the second rate Radio Orchestra and their second rate conductor, Karl Eliasberg. Of the initial orchestra of 100 people, only 15 were left, the others had escaped Leningrad or died. The orchestra was padded out with players from the army orchestra who were even less accomplished than the Radio Orchestra. The players were so weak from hunger and cold that finding the breath to blow a wind instrument or the strength to push a bow across strings was a superhuman effort. Sarah Quigley has taken this historical event and woven a beautifully written story around it. She tells the story through the eyes of three people - Dimitri Shostakovich, Karl Eliasberg, and a fictional character, Nikolai Nikolayev. Quigley captures the singlemindedness of the artist, the jealousy and resentment of the second rate, and the pain and suffering of the people of Leningrad, all interwoven with the story of the music itself and the triumph of art over war.This book would make a wonderful movie.

  • Tweedledum
    2019-06-19 05:57

    This is a truly great book. Great as in the sense of good, inspirational, deeply moving yet unsentimental. The heroism of the musicians who battled starvation and exhaustion to learn and perform Shostakovitch' 7th Symphony while the city was besieged and cut off and of their conductor who inspired and cajoled them into achieving the impossible is a story that richly deserves to enter into the stuff off legend. Sarah Quigley might just have helped that to happen by bringing the story vividly back to life for generations to come.

  • Julia
    2019-05-27 03:12

    Although Quigley's writing was eminently readable, and even contained moments of really quite nice writing, overall the book failed to have the impact that I think it was intended to have - or, at least, the one that I thought it would have. It was enjoyable, but ephemeral; I didn't particularly care when I reached the end, nor feel any emotion, positive or negative, for the characters.Partially this may have to do with unmet expectations. The book takes place in the context of the German siege of Leningrad during World War II, and against the starvation, death and misery of that time. The dust jacket blurb makes much of the fact that the book is about the titular conductor (Eliasberg) preparing his "second-rate orchestra [for] the task of a lifetime. He is to conduct a performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony - a haunting, defiant new piece, which will be relayed by loudspeakers to the front lines. Eliasberg's musicians are starving, and scarcely have the strength to carry their instruments. But for five freezing months the conductor stubbornly drives them onwards to perfection, depriving those who falter of their bread rations. Slowly the music begins to dissolve the nagging hunger, the exploding streets, the slow deaths... but at what cost? Eliasberg's relationships are strained, obsession takes hold, and his orchestra is growing weaker. Now, it's a struggle not just to perform but to stay alive. This is a profoundly moving novel about the resilience of the human spirit and the emotive power of great music."Except it's not.The book is exactly 300 pages long. Eliasberg is given the order to perform the symphony on page 248. The rest of the book is less a heart-tugging paean to the power of the human spirit than an oddly insubstantial narrative hung on three oddly flat main characters, of which the most opaque and seemingly least important is Eliasberg. None of the characters are particularly well-developed. In fact, the three main ones can be summed up in just a few words apiece:- Shostakovich = self/music-absorbed, fickle- Nikolai = depressed- Eliasberg = resentful, inhibitedThe descriptions of Shostakovich's drive for composition are engaging, and give substance to his chapters that the other two main characters lack. As a result, I found myself regarding him as the primary character, and certainly the most interesting, despite the fact that he's not (supposedly) the main character. We're supposed to feel deeply for these characters, but they are just sketches, really, too two-dimensional to carry our emotion. Combined with some glaring examples of too-obvious exposition ("As she disappeared from sight, he felt a conviction, stronger than he'd ever felt, that one day she would be his wife." As an example.), the whole book ends up feeling sketchy - as in, it's a first attempt that needs further fleshing out.So I'm left with a question: was the decision to title the book "The Conductor" and bill it as being all about that performance of the Seventh Symphony:a.) a reflection of the author's original intention, which was never brought to fruition,b.) a reflection of a focus for the narrative that is, somehow, too subtle for the reader to grasp, orc.) an attempt by the publisher to disguise the fact that this is mostly a book about Shostakovich - and perhaps World War II era Russia?I'd like to think that the answer is a. Certainly, there is promise to the book, and I think that, given a couple hundred more pages and several more revision sessions, Quigley might have gotten there. As it is, it feels like white bread - nice to look at, but insubstantial.

  • Rosaria Battiloro
    2019-06-02 07:12

    A volte capita di avere nella mente un'idea ben precisa di un romanzo, più che altro un paradigma di come noi, lettori a volte troppo esigenti, vorremmo che fosse. Affascinati dal tema, dal periodo storico, dall'idea stessa della storia, ne costruiamo una versione iperuranica e personale che raramente, diciamo anche mai, coincide con quella che poi ci ritroviamo a leggere. Ed è giusto che sia così, ognuno scrive su carta (o nella propria mente) il romanzo che sente di dover scrivere. Però con Sinfonia Leningrado resta proprio il sapore dell'amaro in bocca: un momento storico così importante, uno scenario potente e tragico come quello della Leningrado nella morsa dell'assedio nazista, e la sensazione che fra le pietre della città maciullata dalle bombe e fra le sedie vuote del conservatorio abbandonato, potessero esserci ancora molte altre storie da raccontare e altri sentimenti da esplorare, più in profondità, cosa che Sarah Quigley sembra avere il coraggio di fare solo in brevi momenti.

  • Reindert Van Zwaal
    2019-05-22 04:13

    A book that is maybe more evolving about an atmosphere than about the story as such. This might be a bit disappointing in the first part of the book, where several characters are introduced along with a beginning story. It seems at first the book is about to evolve around a story of one of those characters, which becomes clear is not the case later on in the book. Once you leave the longing for a story behind and just take in the setting of Leningrad, the dread of the war and it's difficulties, you can take in the beauty of the book. It shapes the change of a city and the citizens during war time in a serene way while giving the music a place on its own. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the depiction of family loss, reunion, grief, music, perseverance and life on its own.

  • Vanessa
    2019-06-20 08:10

    The human cost of war is a subject that has been expounded upon by many writers, but seldom do we read about the human face of historical events and the art that transcends them. Sarah Quigly has created a ficitionalisation of Shostakovich's endeavour to compose his seventh symphony amongst the devastation of Hitler's invasion of Leningrad with a sublime sense of realism.Alexander Polinsky implores us to "be kind for everyone is fighting a great battle" and it is this assertion that draws us into the character of Karl Eliasberg, the eponymous conductor. No one can know of the circumstances of people's private lives, especially one so private as Elias. He bemoans from the very outset of the novel that he was "born without a heart" and that he has never managed to fit in anywhere. Throughout, Elias appears awkward, cold and socially inept in his dealings with other characters. However the internal monolgues that Quigley has attributed him with do much to endear him to the hearts of readers. Perhaps it is the burgeoning friendship with his young neighbour that reveals his vulnerability and ultimate sense of kindness. Indeed, once he has determined that he is, gloriously, included in a benign conversation he finally allows himself to be exposed to the vulnerability that surrounds all human relationships and interactions.Although it is the music of Shostakovich that has transcended time and represented much of the horror of Hitler's plan to "starve the city into submission", Sarah Quigley's novel does much to paint a vivd picture of the human face of history. It is a face that reveals both fragility and determination and the necessity of love in the face of adversity.

  • Brian
    2019-06-01 03:54

    Set during the siege of Leningrad, Quigley's powerful and enthralling novel focuses on the character of Karl Eliasberg, the conductor who managed to assemble an audience of half-starved musicians from the city's desperate inhabitants and coax from them a performance of Shostakovich's newly-composed seventh symphony. This performance, broadcast on loudspeakers to defenders and assailants alike, would come to stand for the resilience of the Leningrad people under the most extreme privation.Eliasberg is a man tortured by lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Yet in in the pursuit of a task so utterly demanding that there is scarcely time for him to drag his mother's corpse to the frozen cemetery, and no time at all to tell his friends and colleagues of her death, he manages to find a redemptive strength and purpose.All the characters in this novel are powerfully drawn - they are, after all, individuals under the most extreme stress, inhabiting the very margins of existence; and behind them lurks the overwhelming personality of Leningrad, a city where bombs and artillery fall like rain and where the melting snow of Spring reveals dead bodies that have been partly cannabalised by the starving inhabitants.Despite its often cerebral concerns, this novel manages to be a real page turner. I was scarcely able to think about anything else until I reached the end.

  • Julie Thomas
    2019-05-30 07:58

    This book really appealed to me as it covered a period of history I have read about widely and a subject I am passionate about, so I started with high expectations. Every one of them were realised. The characters were real and satisfying and their passion for the music shone through. It was well researched, authentic and I felt I was struggling through this terrible time in history with real people. It is not easy to include 'real' people in fiction, people like Shostakovich and Eliasberg and a 'real' historical event, and Quigley does this brilliantly. I could hear the orchestra as I read. The inclusion of a CD of the Fifth Symphony is a lovely touch and I waited until after I'd finished to listen to it and it brought tears to my eyes. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with history, music and art in their soul!

  • Mike
    2019-06-09 00:01

    Writing a historical novel is difficult, especially when the facts are so well known. The novel is set during the siege of Leningrad; one of the most terrible sieges of all time. It lasted almost 900 days, caused the death of over 1,000,000 Russian soldiers and over 1,000,000 civilians in Leningrad. Basically, in our modern terms, Montreal was wiped off the face of the earth! But Sarah Quigley handles it masterfully. She integrates the known facts and the fictional structure seamlessly. It was a terrible time. I was never overwhelmed by the grief and despair the way the characters were but I felt it nonetheless. The story moves well throughout, the characters are well fleshed out and there are moments of hope and love amidst all the misery. I think any reader will find this book an absorbing read, a difficult but compelling story.

  • Heep
    2019-06-02 00:21

    This book had great potential and was at times very good. It kept my interest enough to finish it. The word that best describes the book for me is inconsistent. There are long stretches that are just too long - the author could have cut back significantly. The historical authenticity seems pretty weak at times and left me wondering whether it was really about the Soviet Union under Stalin. It seems that the author could not decide who should be the narrator, so it jumps around. I could imagine a book having success with this strategy, but not here. It just makes the book seem choppy. The reason for this approach is not clear to me, as it did not add to the dramatic tension, the historic accuracy or some deep symbolic value.

  • Jenny
    2019-05-23 02:58

    I found it very difficult to rate this book. For more than the first half, I found it very slow going. I found the characters (with a couple of exceptions, Sonya for one) quite flat and hard to empathise with. There seemed to be no distinct plot and the characters nor the writing seemed to be quite enough to make up for what felt like a lack of clarity in the novel's direction. However, for the last 100 pages or so I really did enjoy this book. I found the setting vivid, the characters much more three dimensional and easier to empathise with and I felt a desire to keep reading. I still think the plot was a little lacking, but I think that might be more due to personal taste.

  • Peter
    2019-05-31 04:55

    Quigley's account of Shostakovich's life and times is rewarding, but a little puzzling. On the one hand her style of writing is colourful and attractive, and her characters appear vividly and convincingly. On the other hand there are irritating inaccuracies that give the lie to the rest; one can begin to wonder if her research is reliable. For example, a musician would not lean a cello up against a wall, but rather in a corner, to prevent it falling, and no earnest student would go out leaving it propped against a couch. Additionally, if there is such a thing as an oboe mute, its use is most uncommon, and being made of cloth, it would not fall with a clang.

  • Ruth Bonetti
    2019-05-29 02:22

    I did enjoy reading this once I accepted the central focus on Shostakovich and his Seventh Symphony, rather different to Paulina Simons' love epics of The Bronze Horseman and sequels. The opening chapters took rather long to introduce readers to the central characters. Yet these provided sharp contrast to the increasing hardships endured during the siege of Leningrad. It is a wonder that the emaciated, exhausted and malnourished musicians managed to perform such a massive symphony. The characters were drawn with sympathy and grew through their ordeals.

  • Ian
    2019-05-27 05:21

    This a wonderfully creative evocation of the suffering of the population of Leningrad during the WW2 siege. It is spun within the true story about the creation of Shostakovitch's 7th Symphony and the inspirational playing of it to the world from within the besieged city by a motley collection of starving and exhausted musicians, led by the conductor of the title. I'm not a fan of classical music but I still found this fascinating and a great read.

  • m.
    2019-06-11 00:10

    Kitapta olayların anlatımı ve geçişleri arasında bir kopukluk hissediliyor ancak müzik profosyonelce anlatılmış.eğer müzisyenseniz ve shostakivich'ten etkileniyorsanız bunları görmezden gelip beş yıldız verip geçersiniz.

  • Ian Britton
    2019-06-11 01:07

    I do not often give 5 stars but this time I have.

  • Helen O'Toole
    2019-06-09 04:01

    Historical fiction at its finest. I had heard of the starving Leningrad musicians playing Shostakovich's 7th Symphony during the siege and that the Germans soldiers who heard the radio performance had known that a city that still had such a passion for music would never surrender. New Zealand author, Sarah Quigley has written a heartfelt, passionate, gripping account of life before and during the siege based around Shostakovich, Karl Eliasberg, the conductor and a fictional musician, Nikolai and his young daughter, Nina. The chapter titled Nikolai ( pages 38-47 ) is remarkable in how it describes a man coming back to loving his baby daughter after being swamped by grief after his wife's sudden death. If this all sounds very grim: death, starvation, human misery etc, it really does not wear the reader down as the passion of the composer and the conductor to create a musical homage to a city is totally inspiring. Like all historical fiction, it leads the reader to other books of the period. A wonderful novel.

  • Noeleen Shaw
    2019-06-20 05:18

    This is the second time I have read a novel about the siege of Leningrad. Both of them were a hard read. Although there are moments of beauty here the hardship, human degradation and death is sometimes too much. I did enjoy listening to Shostakovich’s 7th on my iPod as I read and I have certainly learnt about the construction angst of a composer. The descriptions of orchestral difficulties was also new to me and I found it very illuminating. Russian names can be a bit of a problem for me also.

  • Shosoloza
    2019-06-05 05:04

    A moving insight and context as background to Shostakovich's 7th symphony interlaced with life in Leningrad leading up to WW II and the eventual siege - all in the context of the musical elite of the day.The siege of Leningrad lasted from September 1941 to 1944. By the end of the siege, some 632,000 people are thought to have died with around 4,000 people from Leningrad reportedly starving to death over Christmas 1941. In the next two months, January and February of 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation.Leningrad was one of the primary targets of 'Operation Barbarossa', and was expected "to fall like a leaf" according to Hitler.Less than two and a half months after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany, German troops were already approaching Leningrad. The Red Army was outflanked and on September 8 1941 the Germans had encircled Leningrad. The siege lasted for a total of 900 days, from September 8 1941 until January 27 1944. The city's almost 3 million civilians (including about 400,000 children) did not surrender and endured increasing hardships. Food and fuel stocks were limited to a mere 1-2 month supply, public transport was not operational and by the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942 in the depths of an unusually cold winter, the city's food rations reached an all time low of only 1/4 of a pound of bread per person per day. The book had me listen to Shostakovich with fresh insight. Sarah Quigley's unfolding characters made for a memorable read

  • Ekin
    2019-06-11 00:13

    Being a musician and a fan of Shostakovich's music myself, Sarah Quigley's novel The Conductor sparked my interest from the first page. It is set between 1941-42, the siege of Leningrad, and is a remarkable story of survival and devotion for music. The strong points of the novel which strike the readers are the depiction of the effects of war on the people of Leningrad, and how artists in particular cope with the hardships of war, while being torn between their own survival and their will to carry on with their work. Quigley is quite successful is portraying this conflict both on external and internal levels, which adds depth to the portrayal of these interesting figures. It is this quality of the book that makes the story so moving; the humanity hidden behind the struggles of life and and their art.

  • Ian
    2019-06-15 06:09

    As I write this I am listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, aka The Leningrad Symphony. I listen as a fitting conclusion to this marvellous novel from Sarah Quigley.Quigley's novel takes the composition and preparations for performance of the 7th as the backbone to the story which follows three men caught in the 1941 siege of Leningrad: composer Dmitri Shostakovich, 2nd string conductor Karl Eliasberg and musician Nikolai Nikolayev. Fact and fiction are seamlessly woven to create a heart-wrenching narrative of the siege and the strength of human resistance under the most extreme conditions. Sarah Quigley writes with great sensitivity, realism and respect for the events of history; so while this is a work of fiction it nonetheless portrays the brutal horror, desperation, and flickering hope of a battered people.

  • Nadine
    2019-06-17 03:03

    A patron at work said this was the best book in our library, so of course I had to read it. Was slow to begin with, a lot of characters to connect with and a couple of similar surnames that took a while to remember because I'm taking longer these days to remember things like that. I can certainly see why he enjoyed the book, I'm not putting it back in the library just yet as I am hoping to play the CD tonight via the DVD player, hopefully it will work as I think this is the part he suggested I might need tissues for. Reading the book has made me want to read her other books which I will be digging out of the stacks shortly.

  • U.R. Bowie
    2019-06-07 00:58

    NOW LET’S MAKE IT A MOVIE It is easy to understand how this novel stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history. The name of Eliasberg is barely remembered any more. Sarah Quigley has brought him back to life as a fictional character, a modest man who, for one brief moment in history, becomes a hero. Imagine going about your usual diurnal and pedestrian life, only to wake up one morning and find that you are in a nightmare. That is what happened to Eliasberg and the people of Leningrad. Plenty of blockade survivors are still alive today, although what they went through is difficult for the rest of us to conceive of. This book gives us a good feel for the air raids, the lack of food, the stress of starving and freezing people, packed together in communal apartments, who press on with their lives while living this terrible nightmare. There are only a few main characters, but they are well portrayed, rounded—Eliasberg, Shostakovich and his family, the violinist Nikolai and his beloved daughter Sonya. At least the basics of the plot are related in a style reminiscent of nineteenth century Russian realism. Notwithstanding this, the novel has elements of the postmodernist style, although they are most likely unintentional (see below). Of course, the plot revolves around the Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, its composition and its early performances. Apparently some publishers include a CD of the symphony with the sale of the book (mine did not), and that is a wonderful idea. You should be listening to the music through earphones as you read the book, because the book is, primarily, about music. The big question is how do you write a book about music? Another, more problematic question: is it even possible to discuss music, its essence, in words? It certainly helps if the person writing the book is her/himself a musician. Anthony Burgess was, and one of the best novels of the twentieth century about music is his Napoleon Symphony. I know nothing about Sarah Quigley’s background, but I would bet that she is a musician. Some of the best passages describe how music is written, how it is played, how a conductor conducts. Here is Eliasberg, escaping from the onerous task of caring for his mother by conjuring up Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: “Instantly, there it was, catching him, stopping his fall. The low repeated notes of the trumpet—full of hope, or foretelling tragedy? The possibility of both was there in that urgent, repeated brass voice. Then the lift to the minor third and the rise to the octave—and then the descending notes, the repeated fall, the rising up again. And the crash! That beautiful, all-encompassing, full and worldly sound, shutting out critical faces and marching feet, ominous news, guilt and fear (26-27).” The book is teeming with such references to composers and music. Here are a few more examples: (1) Eliasberg’s Leningrad Radio Orchestra is at rehearsal, with (before the conductor begins) “messy riffs of violins, and flutes emitting single repeated notes,” against a background of gossip in the ranks. Then (when the rehearsal has begun) the conductor swallows and tastes the fried egg he had eaten for breakfast, “mixed with the sour bile of insecurity,” and nothing seems to go right. “The strings turned the melodies to mush, the brass was coarse, the woodwind as shrill as a wife long out of love with her husband.” To top it all off a stray dog out on the street begins barking against the beat, and bursts of laughter frolic about in the orchestra (66-67). (2) The violinist Nikolai faces a tense family dispute, involving “his scolding sister-in-law and his small angry daughter.” He defuses the situation by sitting down at the piano: “He picked his way through a Boccherini minuet. Each note, even those imperfectly executed, fell like a small pickaxe, chipping away at the frosty atmosphere, easing the pressure” (82). (3) Shostakovich, even at age eleven, is supremely confident of his musical acumen. He debunks his overly conservative teacher by presenting a parody of him for his sister: “He marched over to the piano in the corner of the room. ‘I was playing the opening to my Chopin Prelude like this—‘ With sticky wax fingertips, he began picking out the B Flat Minor Prelude. ‘And he said if I continued that way I would fail my exam. Then he told me to play it like this!’ Sitting up straight on the stool, he shut his eyes so as to better remember Gliasser’s pious expression, and felt his body transform into his teacher’s. His arms became stiff, his fingers turned to wood and, on the pedals, his feet shriveled to those of a seventy-year-old. Because this was a special knack of his, the keys also changed under his touch, as if responding to a different person” (92).Of course, the main musical focus is the Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, and the author is especially convincing (and daring) in the way she goes into Shostakovich’s mind and makes up scenes, describing important moments in the process of composition: (1) The composer finds the march music of his First Movement in the nattering of a repulsive acquaintance. “But as Boris’s voice hammered on, a tinny tune emerged from the insults. . . . a mindlessly repetitive tune. . . . “Pizzicato, that was it! A pizzicato refrain rising from a melancholic E flat melody like a puppet rising from a heap of toys. Unseen hands pulled on the strings (slowly, relentlessly) until the puppet was marching. The wooden tune spread from the strings to the woodwind, and battled repetitively against the snare drums. ‘Idiotic,’ said Boris’s voice from amid the growing din. ‘Arrogant. Imitative.’ ‘Exactly!’ The words burst out of Shostakovich. ‘You’re right! The themes of fascism. It will be a fascist march’”(128).(2) The air-raid sirens wail, and the German planes roar overhead. Shostakovich sends his wife and children down to the cellar, puts cotton wool in his ears and goes on composing. That’s when things begin coming together. “Then, at last, he found a path into the scherzo. The lilting melody of the strings was like stepping out into a fresh country morning. This was underpinned by some stealthy, stagy, staccato cello notes—a little like the footsteps of an aunt not wanting to intrude. Next, the oboe. Lilting and soaring, it was Tatyana’s voice as it used to be, before she became quarrelsome and possessive. . . . “The storm? This would be easier. The first movement had pointed the way, with its uneasy C sharp minor key and its repetitive chaos. He would use brass and woodwind for the buffeting wind, crashing against barns and flattening hedgerows. And a hammering xylophone would return, slowly and inevitably, to the original key of B minor. . . . Then, for a single brief moment, he could see clear to the symphony’s end” (200-201).(3) In playing part of the work on piano for Eliasberg, Shostakovich struggles with his doubts. Eliasberg: “A war symphony. For Leningrad. . . . It will be your Eroica. . . . Like Beethoven, you’ve captured the very essence of war.” Shostakovich: But then, as Beethoven proved, “a naturalistic portrayal of battle may. . . . turn out to be an aesthetic embarrassment.” And maybe it is too reminiscent of the first movement of Ravel’s Bolero, “they’ll say I’ve copied Ravel. Well, let them say it. This is how I hear war.” Then again (Eliasberg), there’s something here reminiscent of the second movement of Sibelius’ Fifth, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 comes to mind, and then again (Shostakovich), they’ll say “I’m becoming derivative of my own work,” for, after all, “A seventh symphony necessarily carries the other six on its back” (181-182). For a similar scene, see p. 218-219. One who listens to Shostakovich’s music could argue, of course, with Quigley’s interpretation of the Seventh Symphony, but she forestalls such protestations in her introductory note: “I have chosen to depict the work as a direct response to the invasion of Leningrad for purely novelistic reasons.” Okay, but I still feel a little bit like arguing. Did Shostakovich ever really say, “This is how I see war”? Is the symphony that directly programmatic? Is the Bolero march in the first movement to be seen as a depiction of the fascists on their way to Leningrad (and never quite getting there)? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To me the so-called “invasion theme,” with its circumspect snare drums and its slow dimwit march with repetitive dimwit refrains, reminds me more of a bunch of Young Pioneers (Soviet girl and boy scouts), on their way to a picnic in May, marching along and singing mindless patriotic ditties. Then come the intrusions of dissonance, the wails of horror, and it all builds to a hideous climax, but a climax of what? Of triteness?Among modern interpreters of the Seventh, many have taken the position that the dimwitted evil in the mindless march encompasses not only Nazi Germany, but the Stalinist Soviet Union as well. I can buy that, and I can’t prove it, but there’s a good chance that Shostakovich himself could buy it. There are even some who say that the glorious ending of the symphony, the spectacular and triumphant finale of the fourth movement (once subtitled “Victory” by Shostakovich) is, perhaps, too glorious by half: not a triumph, but a parody of triumph. Anyway. Just had to get that off my chest.There are a few other things you could argue with. For example, the novel treats as fact Shostakovich’s work in the fire brigade during the siege. But now it appears that he was, for the most part, a symbolic firefighter whose firefighting was used for propaganda value. In her biography of Shostakovich, Laurel Fay writes that “he never actually had occasion to extinguish an incendiary,” and mentions “posed photographs of the helmeted composer steadfastly standing guard on the roof of the Conservatory, shot on July 29 [1941] and disseminated around the globe” (beginning of Ch. 8, “The War Years”). The cover of Time Magazine, July 20, 1942, portrays the bespectacled and youthful composer in profile, wearing an ornate fireman’s helmet--a picture that produces something of a comical effect: nerd as Roman legionnaire. Now for a few things about the book’s unintentional postmodernism. How can you make such a realistic story into something other than realism? Easy. Take a story about Russians, set it in a Russian city, Leningrad, and then make the Russians neither act nor speak entirely like Russians. Furthermore, have them inhabit a city that is Leningrad but frequently seems like somewhere else-- some fairyland inside-out version of the city. Take the problem of the windows in the novel. They open and shut not like any windows in Leningrad or St. Petersburg. At one point Eliasberg is described as “raising the sash window, leaning out and feeling the wind on his face” (26). One thing is right about that: you can lean out Russian windows into the air, because there are no screens on the windows. At another point doors are slamming and windows “fall like guillotines” (105). That won’t work. Russian windows have a handle that you twist and then pull, and the long window half opens toward you, into the room. At the top right of any Russian window there is also a little offspring window (fortochka), used for a bit of ventilation. But sash windows, going up and down? No. Take the problem of the Bronze Horseman, the equestrian monument to Peter the Great, which is certainly the most famous statue in all of Russia. Here is how that monument is described: “In front of them was that familiar bronze statue of Peter the Great. He sat astride his huge rearing horse, face averted from the city he’d founded, eyes fixed eternally on a far horizon. His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands and the bent fetlock of his horse had been stroked to gold. “’What are they doing?’ Sonya spoke in a half-whisper” (111). Indeed, what are they doing, or, better, what have they done? A lifelong resident of Leningrad, Sonya appears to sense that strange things have been done to the Bronze Horseman. Where are we and what is this? It certainly is not the Bronze Horseman as we know it, although that’s a nice imaginative touch (the thing about the bright tip of the sword and the bent fetlock stroked to gold). The fact is that the Bronze Horseman is not holding any sword and never has held a sword. If you look at the real Bronze Horseman the horse seems to be rearing up, spooked by the enormous snake beneath his hooves, and the rider appears to be holding out his right hand to get his balance. Although no one ever seems to notice, it always has seemed to me that Peter is about to be bucked off the most famous horse in the country. As for the stroking of the sword and the horse, even if there were a sword you couldn’t stroke it, and you couldn’t reach the head of the horse. Why? Because the statue is mounted high on a huge rock, too high for idle fingers to reach. So are we really in Leningrad? At one point Eliasberg reaches “the crowded marketplace of Gostiny Dvor,” but then, one page later, he is suddenly at a different outdoor market—the one at the Haymarket (Sennaja ploshchad’—75-76). So which is it? Where are we? We’re neither here nor there; we’re in some kind of ontological crisis, and the peril of ontology is often a central theme of twentieth century post-modernist literature. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Russian characters of the novel are, simultaneously, not Russians. When irritated, for example, they say, “Shit” (16, 83). Speakers of English do that, as do speakers of French. While there are perfectly good Russian words for excrement (¬gavno, der’mo), Russians, for some reason, do not normally utter them by way of expressing irritation. Nor do Russians hold their thumbs for good luck, as Sonya does for Shostakovich (116-117). I’m not sure where people hold their thumbs for good luck (Germany, New Zealand?), but if you walk the streets holding your thumbs in Russia you will create mass confusion. Something like what once happened to a naïve American friend of mine, who, upon his first visit to St. Petersburg, walked down the street, smiling at oncoming pedestrians and saying, in English, “How you doing?” When he later told me that people were looking at him as if he were crazy I said, “Jeff. They really did think you were crazy.” What else? Well, Russians, who don’t smile and say hello to strangers on the street, may also be the most superstitious of all nationalities. They deliberately don’t do things that are thought to bring on bad luck. Whistling is one of them. I have never seen any Russian walking down the street “whistling cheerfully” (25). If you want to guarantee that we are not in Leningrad have Eliasberg whistle cheerfully while raising the sash window.For one who never experienced the Stalinist terror it is hard to imagine how traumatic it was. When you went to bed you never knew if tonight would be the night when they came to take you away. For years on end Dmitry Shostakovich had to live with that terror. In the late thirties some of his best friends were arrested, tortured, shot. If you are prone to condemn him for the compromises he made in order to survive, try reading the fine biography by Laurel Fay. You may find yourself less judgmental after you realize what he went through.The Russians in The Conductor, however, in their attitude to the terror, behave, once again, as if they were not Russian. At one point there is a conversation that simply could not have taken place in the real Leningrad of the early forties. A member of Eliasberg’s orchestra comes to a rehearsal and blurts out to all and sundry the news that his Jewish neighbors have been arrested (140). Not possible. In such situations you kept your mouth shut, or discussed things only in whispers with family members and close friends. Furthermore, on the next page, Eliasberg admonishes one of the orchestra by mentioning the forced labor camps: “At least you’d have learned about hard work, had you been in a labour camp.” Not possible. You assumed that there were spies and informers everywhere, ready to report any manifestation of disloyalty; you never spoke publicly about the camps. Then there is the problem of the names and the patronymics. Admittedly this is a stumbling point for the foreign reader of any novel about Russians, and for any non-Russian-speaking author writing about Russians. Instead of saying “Mr. Volkov,” Russians who wish to be polite and formal address Volkov by his first name and patronymic (name formed from that of his father): Boris Vladimirovich (his father’s name was Vladimir). Yes, that’s a mouthful, but that’s the way it’s done. In her introduction the author explains that she uses Anglicised versions of Russian names and that she has “simplified the complicated Russian method of personal address.” Fair enough, if you can make it work. But then we get things like “Karl Illyyich” (name and patronymic for Eliasberg), with an extra l and an extra y (p. 9). We get, “Sonya Nikolaevska” (114 and elsewhere), an impossible name-patronymic combination. Sonya is a nickname for Sofya (Sophia). Her father’s name is Nikolai; therefore, her name-patronymic would be Sofya Nikolaevna, although since she is a little girl no one would address her that way, except in fun. The only correct use of name and patronymic in the book is that of Shostakovich’s best friend, the polymath and linguistic genius Sollertinsky (Ivan Ivanovich). Of course Nikolai would probably call his daughter by any number of affectionate diminutives (Sonechka, Sonyushechka, etc.), but we need not get into that, and it is fine that Sarah Quigley sticks most of the time with “Sonya.”In sum, the characters of the book live in a somewhat skewed variant of Leningrad; they frequently don’t act like Russians, they don’t address one another like Russians. And, finally, they do not appear to speak Russian. You say, okay, of course they don’t speak Russian, because the book is written in English. True, just as any translation of Tolstoy into English is written in English. But in a good translation we at least maintain the illusion that what the Russian characters are speaking is Russian. Not in The Conductor. Not only do the characters say “Shit” when hot and bothered. They use word play in English. When Eliasberg tells a man at the market that he is a conductor that man replies, “Trams? Or buses?” (80). Nice pun and one more poke at the hapless Eliasberg, but it won’t work in Russian. An orchestra conductor is dirizhёr, and there’s a different word for a conductor on a tram: konduktor.If a translator, let’s say, were to translate the novel into Russian, that translator would certainly render the title as Dirizhёr. The only thing that he/she could do with the pun on p.80 would be to throw it out. Then again, what would the translator do with the multitude of un-Russian things that appear in the book? Leave them there with their eerie postmodernist effect, or try to straighten them out and make the book totally realistic? What, for example, would the translator do when the Russian characters correct each others’ English? See, e.g., p. 240, where Eliasberg corrects “I seen them” to “I’ve seen them” and “virgin-eaters” to “vermin eaters.”

  • Bożena Woroniecka
    2019-05-24 03:54

    "Muzyka wypełniła całe miasto, puste pola i wymarłe lasy wokół niego. Spadała na rosyjskich i niemieckich żołnierzy skulonych w okopach, pozbawiając ich strachu i celu - bo potem z pewnością wszystko znów będzie dobrze, a wiele z tego, co wydarzyło się wcześniej (ciężka zima, bomby wybuchające na ulicach, niekończący się głód, powolna śmierć), zniknie za sprawą muzyki... móc zagrać na skrzypcach wystarczająco dobrze, żeby odwrócić uwagę leningradczyków od prawdy: że partia nic nie zrobiła, by ich uchronić przed głodem i śmiercią." (

  • Loraine
    2019-06-13 01:00

    I struggled to get into the book. But after realising that it is actually only about the lives of 3 people during the Leningrad siege, it became easier. The title is very misleading and should have been The Symphony or at least refer to Shostakovich and the composing of the 7th Symphony. It is an interesting read.