Yesterday, two anticipated books arrived in my mailbox. I decided to read the shorter of them first, and immediately broke one of my unwritten rules: Don’t start reading a book at 10:45 pm. About forty pages in, I finally reluctantly put it aside, taking it up at the earliest possible moment this morning.
The book is Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, a slim volume of just over 150 pages, without chapters. It’s told as a single long narrative, alternating history and analysis of several of Shostakovich’s major works with the author’s own story of how this music helped him grapple with mental illness, both his own and that of his mother. It’s not precisely a book about Shostakovich, says Johnson, “but rather about what his music…has made people feel: Russians who lived with Shostakovich through the horrors of Stalinism; Westerners who have felt that in some way this music is also addressed to them; and myself, survivor of a three-times diagnosed bipolar disorder, for whom music, and particularly Shostakovich’s music, has been a lifeline.” I see myself in these last two statements–particularly the idea of a “lifeline”, even if my own struggles with mental health have been comparatively mild. Anyone who has read the more personal of my writings over the past year would, I think, agree.
Johnson is a British documentarian, musician, and composer with a very long history with the music of Shostakovich, finding great meaning and solace as a teen in the 4th Symphony (which I had just finished listening to last night, in my regular Tuesday night train trip tradition). I know all of the works Johnson references in the book intimately well, save one fairly obscure satirical one.
The book had its genesis in interviews Johnson did for a BBC Radio documentary on the composer. The first story he tells is that of clarinetist Viktor Kozlov, who was one of the musicians in the Leningrad orchestra that performed Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in August, 1942. Kozlov, after relating the story of that triumphant performance with great emotion, was asked whether the music still has the same effect today when he hears it, bursts into tears, saying “It’s not possible to say.” As Johnson puts it, “Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed, and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gradtitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings. And that’s it right there, isn’t it? Johnson mentions the philosopher Roger Scrutton’s admiration for Shostakovich: “where other composers say ‘I’, Shostakovich says ‘We.'” Johnson goes on to illustrate this with examples, not just from the 7th Symphony, but also from the 5th, particularly the third movement which is the searing heart of that crucial work, the one that (possibly literally) saved Shostakovich’s life.
“At its heart is a series of long, desolate, woodwind solos, with the thinnest possible accompaniment from the strings. The feeling of loneliness is intense. But then for a moment, the string writing fills out with a kind of grainy luminescence, through simple rich harmonies that sound remarkably close to those of a Russian Orthodox church choir intoning a melancholy blessing. The grief-saturated alienated voice is suddenly not alone. The suffering is shared.”
And then Johnson shares a revelation: That he, until hearing what commentators had said about this movement, had always seen listening to music as a solitary and private activity, even though he knew that hearing music with others could be an intense shared experience, but until Kozlov had burst into tears, he had never known from personal experience how a piece of music had made another person feel.
If you have been reading along in my own travels with Shostakovich over the past few months, you know I know exactly what that feeling is, because it’s what I experienced myself upon hearing the 7th Symphony performed live in Columbus in January. I said then I was never sure whether others were “getting” this music in the same way I was. I attended the concert alone, but at the end, I was not alone. I was part of that audience, and they had felt it, but I was connected with every single other audience who had ever heard it and felt it, in a direct line back to that audience in Leningrad.
Johnson goes on to discuss in much detail the sprawling, wonderful, terrible 4th Symphony (the glorious unicorn I have in my sights) and its seeming madness (in truth, much more organized than often thought) and shattering coda, the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies, and especially the Eighth Quartet. He makes a strong case for the latter as a tour of both moments in Shostakovich’s life and people he loved–so not just self-referential, as is often assumed, but in many ways in dialogue with them, especially in the final movement when the music finally moves on from the quotations from other works to sum itself up. Throughout this, he intersperses his own story, which I will not retell here; suffice it to say he sums his argument in the final page of the book:
“But–of this I’m quite sure–I don’t feel alone. Shostakovich knows what I am feeling. His music assures me of that. Perhaps he knows better than I do. But he has given me something else as well He has given me his community: half-imagined, half-real. As he says, in the Fourth Symphony’s last pages it’s all set out rather precisely. There is a great choir that I can join: a choir of grief, rage, and determination to survive…And while the music lasts, I am part of it, one voice amongst many. Somewhere out there is a We to which I belong. The thought is comforting, sustaining, indescribably uplifting. When the final bars have faded into silence, I stand sill for a moment. I am not worthless, despicable, insignificant, unworthy to be heard; how can I be, if music can make me feel like this?”
I know this to be true, because yesterday evening, listening to that same music as the train pulled into Burlington Station, I felt this very thing. And I know, without the shadow of a doubt now, that I am not alone, that my own lifeline for this past year has served as such for others, whether they knew it or not. And that is a rare thing, I think. To know how someone truly feels about something–to get inside their head, as it were– is a tremendous gift of understanding and vulnerability. And it is addicting–once you have experienced it, you seek it out–wherever you can find it. In music. In art. In words.
And, as I think of it, I realize that I do know that feeling of knowing precisely how another human being wants you to feel, and it predates my recent obsession with Shostakovich’s music. Because I stood once on a stone floor in a light-filled room in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and looked down a set of stairs to the waterfall splashing below, hearing the music of the water, and I knew precisely what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted me to feel, because I couldn’t not feel it. And I return to that place, over and over, both in thought and in person, because I know that every person who has stood there since 1938 has felt it, too.
Stephen Johnson, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind. Notting Hill Editions, 2018, ISBN 978-1-910749-45-6.