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How Shostakovich Changed My Mind
by Stephen Johnson
Publ. 2018 Notting Hill Editions
Stephen Johnson is one of the finest commentators on music that I know. Be it on the radio, in person or in print, I’ve never come away from one of his musical expositions or pre-performance-talks without feeling enlightened and more thoughtful about the piece I’m about to hear. He brings those gifts to this lovely little book about Shostakovich too, but in addition to revealing new things about the Russian composer, he also, for the first time, reveals some profound things about an atypical subject: himself.
The clue is in the title. This little book – more of an extended essay, really; its 153 pages are written without chapter divisions – charts Johnson’s love for Shostakovich’s music, but it goes deeper by explaining how it acted almost as medicine during some extraordinarily difficult times in Johnson’s life. He goes into depth, with disarming honesty, about the mental health problems that he has lived with since childhood. Even when very young, Johnson struggled with serious depression and was later diagnosed as bipolar. This was heightened by living with a mother who had, if anything, an even more turbulent mental health history which she often seemed to work out on her son. The book makes grimly compelling reading as it describes Johnson’s youthful, often uncomprehending exchanges with his troubled mother, recalled from a position of sympathy and forgiveness as an adult. Even more involving, however, comes a passage where Johnson describes his decision, as an adult, to commit suicide, and the ways his loved ones, particularly his wife Kate, helped him to work through it and keep on living.
And Shostakovich? Johnson writes brilliantly and beautifully about the composer’s ability to speak to him and to make him feel like he was not alone. Few composers can have lived through the psychological strain that Shostakovich suffered in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and yet he never gave in nor lost his innate humanity. Johnson homes in on some key works that have spoken to him – the fourth, seventh, eighth and tenth symphonies; the eighth string quartet, for example – and brings to them all his skills of analysis to investigate how the music works, but also how it reached out to him and drew him out of his darkest place.
He speaks repeatedly about how, in Shostakovich’s music, “I” becomes “we” and produces an empathy that reaches out to all humanity. That sense of empathy is one of the things that touched Johnson in his depression, but it’s also one of the secrets of the music’s overall power. Speaking about its wartime Leningrad premiered, Johnson writes about how the Leningrad symphony “held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed – and in response they roared their approval.” (p. 7) That’s a constant theme of the book, and Johnson is at his best when he uses his powers of musical analysis to explain how it works. There’s a lovely description of the fourth symphony, for example, where he shows that the thematic connections in the vast structure are like connecting ropes, pulled taught across the abyss; and in them Johnson saw a mirror of his own fractured, leapfrogging thought processes. More than that, it made him conclude that he was not alone: “If Shostakovich should find the ‘method’, the thread of logic, in his teeming, cascading thoughts, then perhaps I could too.” (p. 48)
Despite its deeply personal nature, this remains a music book. Johnson brings his trademark lucidity to his exploration of how the vast structures of the symphonies lock together, and he’s equally compelling when exploring the smaller but equally exquisite world of the quartets. Perhaps I could have done without the digression into the workings of the human brain towards the end, but that’s a tiny gripe in a book that left me thoughtful, uplifted and keen to get back to the music as quickly as possible.