How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, by Stephen Johnson [book review]

Written by: Mike Langhorne

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind
Stephen Johnson
ISBN 9781910745456
Notting Hill Editions

This slim volume is about Shostakovich’s frames of mind whilst composing. It is also about how Stephen Johnson has found solace from the music in his battle with deep depression and a bipolar disorder and what seems to be a release of pent-up anger about his journey to maturity.

As a well-known presenter of music, on radio and through programme notes, Johnson has used opportunities in his professional capacity to explore the link between his conditions and the life Shostakovich was obliged to lead in the Stalin years and the music that resulted. He has interviewed individuals in Russia who knew the composer and has gained a deep understanding of his psyche at the time he was writing many of his masterpieces and how he coped with the Reign of Terror that certainly affected him throughout Stalin’s despotism and possibly beyond.

Surprisingly the music of Shostakovich Johnson has found particularly helpful are the bleak slow movements from the Symphonies and String Quartets, in particular the respective Number Eights, although Symphonies 4, 7 (Leningrad) and 10 have also been consoling.

He discusses at some length the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon of tragic rather than uplifting music offering more help in overcoming his depressive state. In doing so he calls upon witnesses to support his conviction, among them Nietzsche, Aristotle, T. S. Eliot and Freud.

Johnson is candid about his childhood, which appears not to have been a totally happy one. He recalls his mother’s hot and cold relationship with him and how she could be suffocatingly affectionate on occasions and witheringly critical and humiliating on others. He regards his development into a sexually-aware adult as a specific marker in the failure of his relationship with her. His revelation that his mother told his wife-to-be things about him that “stunned and horrified” her, and his description of how his mother descended dramatically into a state of frightening mental instability and was eventually sectioned, speaks volumes about the burden he felt he was carrying from his childhood.

This book is an intense and not-easy read though many may find elements familiar to themselves and the author’s sharing could well be a useful aid in dealing with an appalling range of conditions. The music of
Shostakovich has clearly been a considerable comfort to Johnson but I wonder if writing this book has also released much that will help him further. I hope so.

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