A Siege, A Symphony, And The Necessity Of Content, Context, And Connection

Dmitri Shostakovich was already a famous composer by the time the Germans were invading Russia in World War II. With little news of the progressing front, he and his family became trapped in their home city of Leningrad (modern Saint Petersburg). While they would eventually be evacuated to Moscow, many of the citizens did not have the option. The German forces cut off the roads to the city, bombed it daily, and strategized that it would be easier to just let the inhabitants of the city die than take them by force.

The siege of Leningrad lasted nearly 900 days. Famine, disease, winters without heat – it was a brutal fight for survival. In the midst of this chaos, Shostakovich began to write his 7th Symphony. As a means of personal and cultural morale, news of an upcoming work spread fast. The life and art of the Russian people, for all they had been through since the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Stalin, held special meaning. What they often could not say in public they could experience in the arts. Russian works of literature, music, and dance were not just for them, they were of them.

When we market our businesses we ask the questions “what story are we telling,” “why are we telling it,” and “who are we telling it to?” The greater the meaning to our audience, the more powerfully it will resonate. In M.T. Anderson’s book, Symphony for the City of the Dead, he vividly recreates the arc of Shostakovich’s life and why this particular symphony is so moving. The depths of despair and the loftiness of hope shine out through the notes. The embedded references are simultaneously hints and nods to the public lives and private conversations of the people.

We (hopefully) are not dealing with stakes like Shostakovich or the people of Leningrad. However, this lesson of content, context, and connection is important. The music had a story, it was formed out of their shared plight, and it connected them to each other and the world. Likewise, for any idea to resonate it must be worth telling, fit into a broader narrative, and leave some form of impression as it is passed person to person.

When we consider the conversation we want to have about our businesses, we can think in terms of content (what are we saying), context (why does it matter), and connection (who is it for). Without content, we have nothing to say. Without context, any message will be random. Without connection, our message can’t be shared. These are simple and essential concepts we need to constantly stay aware of.

Footnote: There were three initial performances of “The Leningrad Symphony,” none more dramatic than the barely-alive Leningrad orchestra who gathered to perform it late in the siege. The Russian military had to sustain a 2+ hour attack against the Germans so people could gather at the concert hall. Musicians wore gloves with the fingers cut off to play their instruments. People from all over the city came to watch, and those that could not attend heard the concert broadcast on speakers placed all over the city. Anderson’s description is nothing short of epic and a dramatic reminder of the power of art.

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