Leningrad, 1939. Stalin has become the undisputed master of the Soviet Union, social realism has been imposed as the official aesthetic and artists are being arrested and disappearing. Benjamin Fleischmann, a young student at the Conservatory, chooses Chekhov's story "Rothschild's Violin" as the basis for a one-act opera. His teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, has been severely criticized by the cultural commissars for his opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk", and sought refuge in teaching. 1941. The German army invades Russia. Fleischmann joins the civilian brigades defending Leningrad and is killed. Shostakovich has regained official favour with the patriotic fervour of his Seventh Symphony. Protected now and feeling guilty for it, he decides to orchestrate his dead student's unfinished opera in order that a work of music bearing Fleischmann's name may live on to honour his memory.
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"Rarely has a project taken hold of me as gradually and strongly as this one. In 1990 I heard the opera "Rothschild's Violin" on the radio. I had never heard of Fleischmann. I tried to find out more about this composer, who had left only this sigle work, but I found only brief mentions in biographies and accounts of Shostakovich. At the same time, re-listening to the opera and delving into the whole of Shostakovich's music, I felt I could dicern subtle, even mysterious links. As in Chekhov's story on which the libretto is based, coffins and violins are made from the same wood... I realized that the opera's story, which is about handing on, is couched inside another story that reflects it, that of a master who pays homage to the memory of his student and receives an unexpected gift in return, which leaves its traces in his future work and gives him new energy to withstand persecution."