Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, 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 gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.