Over the next three years, 1.4 million people left the city or were evacuated, while up to 1.5 million starved or died from other causes. By the time the siege ended in January 1944, only 700,000 people were left alive.
One of those evacuated was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, a man who by 1939 was already considered dangerously famous. He was too important to the Russians to remain unsilenced and too well-known in the west to be killed. But even before he left Leningrad, Shostakovich had completed work on the first three movements of a new symphony.
Since the city's Philharmonic Orchestra had already gone, it was left to the smaller Leningrad Radio Orchestra, conducted by Karl Eliasberg, to perform Shostakovich's melodic response to war (a copy of the completed score had been dropped into the besieged city from a light aircraft).
Even for healthy musicians, the Leningrad Symphony is a physical and spiritual challenge. Around an hour and 15 minutes in duration, complex and often inaccessible, it requires stamina and huge forces. Twenty five of the orchestra's musicians were either away fighting or had already died; the remaining 15 were so weakened they didn't have the breath or strength to play their instruments. A call went out for any musicians left in Leningrad to join them. Rehearsals were punctuated by players falling from their chairs. Eliasberg, who like everyone else was starving, insisted that musicians attend rehearsals even while their families were dying.
Even so, on 9 August 1942 the unbroken city heard Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony for the first time, and wept. The night before, the Russians had shelled the surrounding Germans into silence. Now they pointed radio loudspeakers at them. After the performance was over the silence continued.
Reinhabiting a recent historical event for fictional purposes is a finicky trick to pull off. Even with excellent sources of information there is still a leap to be made – from outside to in, from present normality to wartime extremity. It's a mark of Sarah Quigley's sympathy that she not only brings Shostakovich and Eliasberg back from the dead – and writes like a virtuoso about music – but that she manages to light up something of the Russian soul.
Quigley is a New Zealander living in Berlin for whom these leaps of time and place seem to come easily. In her account, Shostakovich emerges – as all great Russian composers should – as possessed, possessing, magical, intolerable. Eliasberg, his opposite, is a stifled man still living with his mother who is considered by his musicians to take an entirely heartless approach to music. "Of course I have no heart!" he tells the reader. "Many years ago, in that Leningrad stairwell, I gave my heart to Shostakovich."
Most readers will know the outcome; many will also know that after the war Eliasberg did not go on to brighter things but had an equally miserable time under Stalin. Quigley leaves the story in its proper place, in the beat of silence before the baton comes down. The Conductor reads like a proper up-all-night page-turner, but it also goes deeper than that, conveying the extraordinary life-saving properties of music, and hope.