Saturday 27 June 2020

Interview with Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson studied at the Northern School of Music, Manchester, and composition under Alexander Goehr at Leeds University, then at Manchester University. Since then he has written regularly for The Independent and The Guardian, and was Chief Music Critic of The Scotsman (1998-9). He is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber 1998), and studies of Mahler and Wagner (Naxos 2006, 2007). As a BBC broadcaster he presented Radio 3’s Discovering Music for 14 years, as well as a series of 14 programmes about the symphonies of Bruckner. He is also a regular contributor to the BBC Music Magazine. Stephen radio documentary, Shostakovich: Journey into Light, was nominated for a Sony Award in 2007. And in 2009 his radio documentary Vaughan Williams: Valiant for Truth, won a Sony Gold Award. His book about music and mental health, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (based on the Shostakovich documentary) was published in Spring 2018, followed in 2020 by a book about Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910 (Faber). In 1997 Stephen began composing again. His orchestral work Behemoth Dances had its premiere in Moscow in April 2016, followed by its UK premiere in London in May. In January-February 2019 his Clarinet Quintet Angel’s Arc was performed by Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet, and an American premiere is planned for November 2020. His website is here.

Below, he talks with Jonathan Taylor about his work, and his book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, which was published in 2018 by Notting Hill Editions

Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: Perhaps, to start with, you could talk a bit about the aims, scope and context of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind: what is it about? What impelled you to write this book?

SJ: My aim shifted as I wrote it. There was a personal agenda - I was aware of that right from the start. Like Sibelius (whose Fourth Symphony I mentioned in the book), I wanted to see if writing about my own painful experiences might help get them 'into some kind of new perspective.' Therapy had brought me to realise how traumatic had been - not only my own experience of mental illness (I’m bipolar type two) but also the experience of growing up with a very disturbed and disturbing mother and a father who could barely cope. But it has also brought out just how important music had been in my own survival - and, more recently, considerable improvement. I hoped writing the book might somehow objectify all this for me. I think it did - and, perhaps more importantly, my wife Kate thinks so too. But, having talked about this book with others before I began to write, I sensed another possibility - that I might be able to offer something affirmative and helpful to people who had been through similar, or comparable, experiences. The reaction I’ve had to it, in reviews and in private emails via my website, suggests that it really did work. I’m haunted by Nietzsche’s remark that 'without music life would be a mistake.' By looking more closely at what music - especially tragic music - can do for us, I wanted to say that life doesn’t have to be a mistake. My experience is proof of that.

 JT: What are the particular challenges, for you, of writing (in prose) about music and musical experience – of representing one art form through the medium of another? Are there things music can do that literature can’t, and vice versa?

SJ: I love reading - especially novels, poetry, history and the more readable kinds of philosophy - but I’m aware that music does something special, possibly because it doesn’t speak through clear concepts or ideas, and can therefore bypass our critical defences and engage directly with our deepest feelings. I love Ernst Bloch’s comment, ‘When we listen to music, what we really hear is ourselves’ - I quote it in the book to make it clear that, whenever I describe music, it is my reaction I’m describing, however much it may be supported by the reactions of others. Describing music using non-technical terms is very challenging, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. I’m aware of the much-quoted (and variously attributed) line that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ - yet I can’t help feeling that if I were a choreographer I would particularly enjoy the challenge of creating dance about architecture - the challenge can also be highly creative. And I think of the example of writing that have opened my ears to new aspects of music - from the musicological (Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style) to literary (Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus) to poetry (Osip Mandelstam on Schubert, T.S. Eliot or Ruth Padel on Beethoven). When I think about it, the writing on music that I’ve found most liberating has been  more often literary than musicological.  

JT: At one point in How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, you talk about some of the ways in which music – and particularly Shostakovich’s music – exists beyond the scope of logical contradiction: that it can seemingly hold two opposite emotions (for example) in balance at the same time. This has struck me forcibly too at times, in terms of Shostakovich’s, as well as Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler's and Berg’s music. What is it, do you think, about music that makes this possible?

SJ: This is a very interesting, and a difficult question. Shostakovich and Mahler in particular were great ironists. Tchaikovsky does it too - I’m thinking particularly of the finale of the Fifth Symphony. It can be that a mood of tragedy or comedy - or even what seems like a straightforward ‘happy ending’ - is artfully contrived to created the impression that it ‘protests too much’ - that the emphasis is overworked, or that there may be some impression of lingering doubt within the affirmation, as in the final ‘memory’ of the minor-key Scherzo just before the massively, obsessively affirmative major-key ending of Beethoven’s Fifth. Or, since you mention Berg, there’s the emergence of the Bach chorale in the finale of Berg’s Violin Concerto - is it religious consolation, or a desolate ‘if only'? Some of the best performances have left me with the sense that it’s both - or as Beethoven put it, ’Sometimes the opposite is also true.' 

JT: Why Shostakovich in particular?

SJ: My sense of involvement with Shostakovich goes back to my early teens, and some of my most vivid memories of music somehow coming to my aid in times of great personal distress centre on teenage experiences of his Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies. I’ve always had a rather odd memory - and I found I was soon able to ‘play back’ these works in my head as I went out for long walks and cycle rides in the West Pennine Moors near where I grew up. I spent a lot of time on my own - it slightly shocks me now to think back to that time and acknowledge this. I don’t know whether I’m truly solitary by nature (in fact I doubt it), but needing to entertain, and sometimes calm and reassure myself during these lonely excursions clearly forced me to develop my musical memory at an early age - with poetry and prose following close behind. I’m enormously grateful for that - but above all I feel a huge sense of gratitude to Shostakovich himself. His music, probably more than anyone else’s, seemed to reflect back to me the mental torment I felt, and to transform it. As I became increasingly drawn to Russia - through music, and through the works of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov - I found that Russians seemed to find this notion less surprising than most of my Western friends and colleagues. I remember one old Russian I met saying to me, 'There’s something about hearing your most painful emotions transformed into something beautiful …' He didn’t have to say any more. 

JT: Who do you think is your intended reader? Do you have one in mind while writing?

SJ: At first I wrote for myself, but as I wrote I had the growing feeling that there must be many others like me. Maybe they hadn’t had the same kind of traumatic childhood experiences that I had, but had found tragic music their most powerful comforter. I had an email from a man in the USA recently who wrote, 'You made me realise I wasn’t alone.' I’m sure you can imagine my feelings on reading that. To know that you’ve made something out of your own pain that has been a light for others - it doesn’t get better than that.

JT: I thought the book was structured beautifully – as an extended essay, split into sub-sections, rather than chapters. How did the structure of the book come about?

SJ: Several people have said the same, but this was the aspect of the book I thought about least.There was one conscious consideration. I’m aware of how difficult it is for busy modern readers to find longish periods to devote to an argument. The idea of having it in short sections made sense if I pictured someone reading it on a shortish train or average tube journey, or even reading it in bed at night - though I admit it isn’t the way I prefer to wind down before turning off the light. On the whole though it felt like having a carpet unroll under your feet as you walk. You can only see a foot or two of carpet ahead, but you keep walking and it keeps unrolling. Mind you I did have one very important bit of structural feedback. I’m particularly proud of the last two pages of the book, in which I recreate what it was like at around 16 to stride across the moors with Shostakovich Fourth thundering through my head, but this felt like a new kind of writing for me. Originally this came about two-thirds of the way through the book. I showed it to Kate, and she immediately adopted her characteristic frown of concentration. It deepened visibly whence came to that passage, and I braced myself for something difficult. Then she looked up and said, ’This is the end.’ For a moment I didn’t know what she meant (it sounded bad), but then I realised, and she was absolutely right. After that the rest of the book just flowed towards it.

JT: How difficult was it to find the right balance between personal (memoiristic) material, on the one hand, and musicological or literary material, on the other?

SJ: I’m sorry it this is frustrating, but again I didn’t give it much thought. I liked the idea of weaving all sorts of different kinds of material together. You can suggest so much - invite reflection - this way without having to spell things out. It becomes a more creative experience for the reader - or that was my hope.

JT: What do you think are the strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, constraints of the personal essay form?

SJ: Well, to quote Nietzsche again, ’There are no facts, only interpretations.’ I don’t know if I entirely agree, but it’s a very important challenging thought. There must be objective truth, but how good are our minds at identifying it? The more I read of what I was once taught was ‘objective’ musicology, the more subjective I realise it is. I prefer to be honest about this, and the personal essay seems to me a far better way of achieving this than an academic thesis. Of course it risks veering into self-indulgence, or worse pure solipsism. I was very keen indeed to have as many level-headed people read this as possible, and to listen to their strictures. If the book does manage to avoid what a friend calls ’swimming in the me pond,’ that’s more proof that we can be better people in our work than we are in everyday life!

JT: What do you think you learned, about yourself, Shostakovich, or others, in writing the book?

SJ: Plenty - too much to go into detail. But there are two things that leap to mind. First it brought home to me how astonishing was Shostakovich’s achievement in holding to what be valued in his heart in the midst of the horror and madness of Stalin’s Soviet tyranny. This was absolutely the opposite of macho Hollywood idea of heroism. Shostakovich was highly sensitive, emotionally fragile perhaps, and in later years he lacerated himself for what he considered his own weakness and capitulation. But there was something deep within him that held firm, and now it speaks to millions - look at the views on YouTube for some of his most popular works and you’ll see that’s literally true.

For me though, when I read through the book before sending if off to the publishers, I was surprised at how moved I was myself, but especially by its message of hope. As I approached the end I remember a sensation like a convulsion from within - I’m not exaggerating - and found myself repeating, ‘It’s all true. It’s all true.’ I end as I began, with a reference to Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis' - apparently a very bleak parable, yet with a glimmer of light near the end. Gregor, transformed nightmarishly into some kind of giant insect and increasingly abandoned by his family, hears a violin playing and asks himself, ‘How could he be a brute beast if music could make him feel like this?’ I remember reading that years ago and thinking, ‘One day I’ll write a book about that.’ This is it. 

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

1 comment:

  1. I've read and re-read this book twice. I admire Stephen Johnson's work enormously, I wonder if he regards this book as his magnum opus , as it's a very personal account. It also introduced me to some DSCH I hadn't met before. It really is a very illuminating, concise read. I also recommend his latest book on Mahler, another fascinating read. This has a great section on Mahler 10. Mr Johnson completely changed my standpoint on this.