Symphonies of suffering

Stephen Johnson – How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (Notting Hill Editions, 2018)

The title of this book seems to contain another, perhaps earlier title. It feels like it might have been called ‘How Shostakovich Changed The World’, only later downgraded to the more modest ambition of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind.

But there is something to be said about this ambition and the usefulness of this book. I think its more modest ambition is, in a weird way, a much higher one.

In fact all of this dovetails with Notting Hill Editions (NHE) and their own aims. Their linen-bound books are luxurious, but solid. Well-made and practical. According to Kim Kremer NHE are not ‘interested in offering the cheapest book’, but rather ‘in publishing meaningful books that will last being passed hand to hand.’

The importance of passing this book hand-to-hand comes across in the reading, but also in the way I put it in the new context of 2020: The world is not getting more stable – quite the opposite – and mental disturbance is rising in relation to that. Here then, is a set of resources; Shostakovich’s music and Stephen Johnson’s use of it to battle excruciatingly intense mental states. Johnson suffers from bipolar disorder.

Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise and Leaving Home – A Conducted Tour of 20th Century Music by Simon Rattle would make good companion volumes for this book. But you don’t need them. Johnson covers some of the material that I was first shocked to read in Ross’s book.

Ross’s chapter on Shostakovich details the frozen life the composer had under Stalin. His relatives and friends were murdered all around him. How he escaped murder himself is a matter of some surprise, rather than an inevitability assured by his status as an internationally known artist.

Johnson assesses Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony in light of Nietzsche and tragedy. It is clearly explained and unpretentious. You don’t need a lot of grounding in philosophy or classical music to understand it. In this, the book also acts as a gateway to other rich universes.

This is a gift – literally and figuratively – for anyone struggling psychologically who would benefit from understanding how a person might keep going under extreme duress. This means both the author Stephen Johnson and Shostakovich.

It also, without directly saying it, means all of us. For instance, the Fourth Symphony is one in which key motifs return to us again and again ‘wearing masks’. At the end it frees up, after we have woken up in very different states, almost as different people. The application of this musical form to sufferers of bipolar disorder is obvious, but it also says a lot about the world in which all of us sadly live.

Johnson quotes the Medici Quartet’s Paul Robertson, who says that in regard to the human condition, ‘all things are bearable if they have meaning.’ It is a brilliant insight. Of course, Homo Significatio is not just a logic machine.

Johnson describes how listening to Shostakovich allowed him to access his grief and rage, how that circumnavigated the ‘KGB’ of his own psyche and opened him up to himself.

The most harrowing part deals with Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and the depths of psychological pain. For Shostakovich, the 8th was written at the point of the regime’s ‘thaw’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

But Shostakovich was, by this time, permanently damaged. The 8th Quartet is a dark staircase down into suicide and death, triggered by a pestering party official.

But for Johnson, dealing with the roots of his own psychological damage, writing about the 8th and exploring it became a ‘crack in a door.’ It allowed him to see how he might be able to survive. Johnson explains earlier in the book that for Hamlet ‘thematic connections are the ropes across his abyss.’ So too, the repeat masked themes in the Fourth Symphony are ropes across an abyss.

Here we come – surprisingly late in the book – to Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, Nietzsche and Freud, to Greek tragedy as the bridge between the rational and the seethingly animal in us. Johnson is not, of course, miraculously healed, but he spies a way to go on. Much later, sense can be made of the horror, the hand loosens its grip, ‘we notice with relief that the alarm has fallen silent.’

Shostakovich the man is described here as a box with three false bottoms, which seems to me to tally with Churchill’s famous description of Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. I see the opening titles of the BBC Tinker Tailer series, the empty Russian Doll left rolling.

At this point we all need opening up to ourselves again, and we all need wakening to history again. This book does all those things and it happens to be very beautifully and robustly made.

That abyss of Hamlet’s is still below us all. We need to make new connections and to learn how to do that again from a dark place.

As Johnson writes several times throughout the book, deploying the line a little like Shostakovich’s own personal musical motif, the music of Shostakovich often seems to say ‘We’, not ‘I’.

This is not just a book about Shostakovich or mental illness. This book is highly necessary and directly useful to everyone. It is universal.

– Steve Hanson

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