Discussing Symphony for the City of the Dead: A Group Guide

Written by Francisca Goldsmith on Sunday, July 10, 2016


Planning an audiobook discussion with this Week 10 title? Download it before this coming Thursday so you have it ready when your discussion group is formed.


After you have established the group, introduce this audiobook by listening to the Prologue together, as it introduces everyone to these important elements:

  • The sound of Shostakovich’s music as we hear several bars from Symphony 7
  • The pace of the author-narrator that lets us hear how energetic and engaging the following book will be as he reads it to us
  • Themes of espionage, civilian suffering in war, and the power of music in both the individual’s and cultural identity

Referring to good timeline discussions and maps of both World War II’s Eastern Front and the city of Leningrad as a Slavic hub may help to establish the significance of M. T. Anderson’s choice of subject matter in SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD

Find out about the author, M. T. Anderson.

Find out more about Dmitri Shostakovich.

Listen to Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 in full.

Once the members of the discussion group have the opportunity to listen to SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD, offer these questions (or your own) to provide everyone with the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings and learn from each other’s responses.

  • What examples occur to you of contemporary musicians creating works as a show of determination in the midst of political and physical oppression?
  • How does M. T. Anderson keep us on track while developing several essential lines of inquiry here: the city’s hardships, the politics on the world stage, the musician, and the popular response to his writing the symphony as he was undertaking the project?
  • Authors often read aloud their drafts as they work to develop and improve them for publication. Listening to this author read his own work, what do you notice about how his voice and pacing match his phrasing and word choices?
  • How did having bars from Symphony 7 to hear as the history of its creation and preservation unfolded support or distract you? 
  • Which detail most piqued your interest in listening further when we listened to the Prologue together? Were you engaged by the espionage element? Or wonder how a piece of scrap paper at a radio station survived the war? Familiar with the symphony and wanted to have a deeper understanding of its meaning to the residents of the besieged city? Or…?
  • What subject would you like M. T. Anderson to investigate and write about in the future? Does the subject have an element best read with your ears, an essential sound quality such as expressive music, unfamiliar language choices or accents? Would you want to hear him read about it to you?
  • Listen to and watch the official music video of Billy Joel's popular song "Leningrad" which was released in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and before the city returned to its historic name of St. Petersburg. What other cities have events in their histories marked by musical expression?

During or after the discussion, participants may want to pursue one of these extension activities (or others you or they suggest):

  • Drawing or coloring while listening to Symphony 7 in full (allow 90 minutes)
  • Creating a brief piece of music to share that expresses feelings about a current event
  • Listening to another title by M. T. Anderson and discussing how he incorporates politics into his historical and science fiction as well as this nonfiction title you have just discussed

The image of author and narrator M. T. Anderson was created by David Wilson and appeared in the Boston Globe.

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