Tuesday 9 June 2020

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "How Shostakovich Changed My Mind" by Stephen Johnson

In William Nicholson's Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis famously declares: ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ Stephen Johnson’s remarkable essay-cum-memoir, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, claims the same for music, and particularly Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies and quartets: we listen, that is, to know we’re not alone. In Shostakovich's music, Johnson finds a mirror for his own mental illness, trauma, near-suicide: ‘emotions and thoughts I had experienced as terrifying vast, chaotic and threatening acquired ... a sounding form. In the midst of my long-drawn-out isolation, Shostakovich reassured me that I was not utterly alone. Someone else knew what I felt – perhaps even in some mysterious sense “heard” me.’

The music ‘hears’ Johnson despite the apparently vast socio-cultural gulf between composer and listener. Shostakovich lived and worked in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and his music grows out of that context, often explicitly so: ‘Listening to … stories about what people had endured under Soviet Communism, and about what Shostakovich’s music had meant to them, I was increasingly aware of something like guilt. How can I claim that this music speaks to me too, a citizen of a much freer, safer country, who has never known what it is to dread the knock on the door in the small hours?’ Yet, despite this, the music does still ‘speak’ to Johnson and others who never lived under Stalin’s Terror; somehow it does recognise the ‘emotions and thoughts’ of those living in very different contexts, and Johnson lucidly sets out some of the ways in which ‘Shostakovich’s music was never solely about “I,” or even about the great Russian collective “We.” It was for anyone with ears ready to hear.’

Of course, musical experience is not often talked about in these terms, especially in the West; as Johnson himself admits, ‘listening to music’ is often understood as ‘a private, solitary activity,’ a kind of ‘solipsistic reverie.’ But Shostakovich’s music, according to Johnson, can move the listener from solipsistic reverie to collective dreaming, from individualistic pain to shared suffering, from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ Johnson expertly traces how this process is staged in the works themselves: the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement, for example, moves from individual pain and ‘loneliness’ to ‘a moment [when] 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.’ In the same movement, that is, Shostakovich’s music can embrace a whole world of 'emotions and thoughts,' a 'broad spectrum [with] “I” at one end, shading gradually into an immense “We” at the other.’ 

‘Shostakovich,’ writes Johnson, ‘can meet us in moments of terrible isolation, as he can in moments of shared joy.’ We listen to him and, as Nicholson’s C. S. Lewis might expect, ‘we’ no longer feel alone; and something similar might be said of the experience of reading Johnson's beautiful memoir.

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

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