How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Readers of Shiny New Books will know of my love for Notting Hill Editions books; I’ve reviewed their Beautiful and Impossible Things and The Russian Soul volumes, and so the promise of a new book covering the impact of Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s music on author Stephen Johnson was impossible to resist.

The book is called How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, and the use of words in that title is very specific and relevant. We’re not just talking about opinions here; Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

There is something about the effect of music that defies analysis: philosophical, psychological, neurological, or any other kind of rational approach. Only poetry comes close.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues. Controversy still rages about whether Shostakovich was simple a lackey of the communist regime or a secret dissident; both of these readings seem to be far too simplistic to me, a view with which Johnson seems to agree. Living through the Soviet Terror meant walking a tightrope which was never in a straight line but wobbled everywhere, with constantly shifting boundaries that were almost impossible to negotiate. In so-called ‘normal’ life we present a different face to whoever we’re dealing with – one face for the public, one for family, one for friends, one for authority – and this splitting of the self can have a damaging effect on personality. Imagine, therefore, how much more complex those splits would be under a totalitarian regime and you can start to understand why there are so many apparent contradictions in the composer’s life.

Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted, as Johnson demonstrates with this quote from the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova:

Whoever breathed that air perished, even if he accidentally saved his life. The dead are dead, but everyone else – the executioners, ideologues, facilitators, praisers, the ones who shut their eyes and washed their hands, and even those who gritted their teeth all night – they were also victims of the terror.

Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable and Johnson’s thoughts on the relationship between dictator and victim could equally apply to someone like Bulgakov:

Stalin may have been a ruthless mass-murdering dictator, but he seems to have drawn the line at smut. Or perhaps it was just another turn in the horrible cat-and-mouse game that until his death in 1953 Stalin appears to have played with Shostakovich. It has even been said that Stalin indulged in such games with people he liked – if a man as psychotically ruthless as Stalin can be said to have ‘liked’ anyone.

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music. I found myself literally unable to put the book down; and as someone who has no technical knowledge of music, the explanations of why Shostakovich’s work affects us the way it does were fascinating and understandable. And I now seem to find myself noticing his DSCH musical signature in everything of his I listen to…

Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!

(At the time of writing, Stephen Johnson’s 2006 programme Shostakovich: A Journey Into Light was available online here at the BBC Radio 3 archive, and would make a wonderful companion piece to the book.)

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and tends to get fairly rhapsodic about Shostakovich.

Stephen Johnson, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (Notting Hill Editions, 2018). 978-1910749456, 155pp, hardback.

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