Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson

About the Author:

MT Anderson is an accomplished writer who has written a wide variety of titles, including works of fantasy and satire for a range of ages. Anderson grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He was educated in English literature at Harvard University and Cambridge University, and went on to receive his MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University.

Before becoming a writer, Anderson held several other jobs, some of which he has used as inspiration for his writing. He worked as a burger flipper, a department store cashier and a radio DJ. His previous novels have included Thirsty, a vampire novel, Burger Wuss, a fast food revenge book and Feed, a futuristic satirical novel. Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Award for YA fiction in 2003. It was additionally a finalist for the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. Anderson has also written a number of children"s picture books.  MT Anderson currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a masterwork thrillingly told and impeccably researched by National Book Award–winning author M. T. Anderson.   (From the publisher)

Discussion Questions:

  • After reading the book, go back and analyze the prologue. Why does the author choose to open with the story of the microfilm? What other topics does he touch on in the prologue that prove important in the book? What storytelling elements does M. T. Anderson use to pull readers in and entice them to read the story?
  • Describe times in Shostakovich’s life as a composer when he was publicly admired and times when he was publicly derided. What caused the different public opinions about him? What effect did the ups and downs of his reputation have on his daily life and family? Talk about how he handled the changes, including his emotional responses.
  • Violence and deprivation permeated the Soviet Union during the period covered by this book. Identify the sources of violence and the forms it took. What were the goals of those perpetrating violence? How did the violence and deprivation affect cities and the country’s cultural heritage? How did they affect families and daily life?
  • Describe the Soviet Union’s role in World War II, including its shifting alliances with other nations. What was Stalin’s relationship with Hitler, and how did Hitler deceive him? What factors brought about Hitler’s loss to the Soviet Union? Discuss the price that the Soviets paid for their victory and talk about the aftermath of the war for the Soviet Union.
  • In what ways did Stalin undermine his own success, especially regarding the war against Hitler? What impact did his earlier purges have on the Soviet Union’s ability to fight? How did the fear of those under him, who had seen so many colleagues killed, have a negative impact on their effectiveness during the war? Give specifics from the text in your discussion.
  • “What is the line between art and propaganda?” (page 239). Based on your reading of the book, discuss the similarities and differences between the two. Give examples of the ways music, including Shostakovich’s music, was used as propaganda by the Soviet government. Does the artist’s intention affect whether a piece of art is propaganda?
  • One of Shostakovich’s friends said, “He learned to put on a mask he would wear for the rest of his life” (page 139). M. T. Anderson echoes this point in the author’s note, describing the composer as “a man who learned to live behind a mask” (page 382). Note other examples of this metaphor as you read and discuss the way it relates to the composer’s life, the lives of those around him, and the political situation.
  • “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience” (page 281). This idea is raised more than once in the narrative. Discuss what the author means and give examples from the text of different audience reactions to Shostakovich’s symphonies in different places, including the United States.
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead reveals the power of music in people’s lives in the Soviet Union during a certain period. Discuss the different roles that music plays in your life and the lives of those around you. Compare its importance in your life to its importance to people in the book. What would your life be like without music?
  • Unlike many nonfiction authors, M. T. Anderson addresses the reader directly at times. In one example, he says, “It is easy for us all to imagine we are heroes when we are sitting in our kitchens, dreaming of distant suffering” (page 117). As you read, take note of similar passages or instances in which the author’s voice comes through in phrases such as “No need to worry at all. Happy New Year” (page 160). Discuss this approach and the reason the author takes it, tying your analysis to specific passages and their context. Analyze M. T. Anderson’s overall point of view toward Shostakovich and his music, grounding your analysis in the text.
  • Throughout the book, M. T. Anderson discusses problems with his sources and their reliability. Early on, he evaluates an anecdote about Shostakovich seeing Lenin (pages 24–26). Discuss this story and the way the author handles the uncertainty about its credibility. Relate this analysis to Anderson’s comments on page 140 about the authenticity of Shostakovich’s purported memoir and his further discussion in the author’s note (pages 381–383) about the trustworthiness of sources in the Soviet era. Discuss other examples in the text where the author deals with similar issues.
  • Contemporaneous photographs are primary sources that provide information about a time and place. What role do historic photographs play in this book? What kind of information do they add? What emotions do they evoke? Study several of the photographs carefully and discuss them in detail.
  • M. T. Anderson writes in the prologue that “at its heart,” the book is “a story about the power of music and its meanings” (page 7). Read the rest of that paragraph and talk about it. After finishing the book, discuss whether you agree with the author’s words. In what ways is the book about the power of music? How did music help people feel less alone?

(Candlewick Press Teacher's Guide)