horizontal line

Music (for Dmitri Shostakovich) Something miraculous burns in music; as you watch, its edges crystallise. Only music speaks to me When others turn away their eyes. When fearful friends abandoned me music stayed, even at my grave, and sang like earth’s first showers of rain or flowers suddenly everywhere alive. Anna Akhmatova, 1958 (translated by Paul Schmidt)

Over the last decade or so neuroscientists have confirmed a truth that’s long been obvious to flappers and philosophers alike, that music is good for you. It can play a key role in the healing process, particularly in cases of acute melancholia. However, often it isn’t pretty tunes that soothe the savage breast but sombre, emotionally stirring music, eg Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (‘The Tragic’) or Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, which salve the wounded psyche. For Radio 3 presenter and journalist, Stephen Johnson, Shostakovich is nothing less than a matter of life and death. In How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (as in ‘for the better’), Johnson, a tireless and passionate advocate of the man and his works, explores how the fraught music of Shostakovich shepherded the Soviet Union through the dark times of Stalin and the Great Patriotic War – and also helped to pull Johnson, suffering from clinical depression, out of the suicidal depths of despair.

It’s not all nature, Johnson’s condition; it’s also nurture, or the lack thereof: a well meaning but ineffectual father, a cold, disapproving mother given to lashing out – Larkin’s ‘mum and dad’ (mainly mum), Tolstoy’s ‘unhappy families’. Bad became worse when Johnson, a precocious, middle-class schoolboy, was dumped without explanation on his grandmother in Derbyshire, where he felt out of place in a rough and tumble working-class environment. Johnson withdrew into symphonic music, notably Shostakovich’s Fourth, which he listened to repeatedly. The Fourth, which Shostakovich set aside after the long run of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was brought to an abrupt end by a chilling notice in Pravda (‘Muddle Instead Of Music’: Stalin wasn’t just The Great Helmsman, he was The Great Music Critic, too), was a formative experience for Johnson, a catharsis; there was a tiny ray of light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a testament to Johnson’s character that he can discuss his troubled, lonely adolescence and later struggles with bipolar disorder without bitterness or self-pity.

But this is no misery memoir. Johnson has too much respect, too much reverence, for Shostakovich to ‘scrawl his story across the music’. The author’s self-questioning as to whether he is worthy to compare his ordeal to those who suffered the siege of Leningrad – more than a third of the population died (mostly from starvation) – speaks to his humility. It takes Johnson to Russia to seek out witnesses from that time, including a few who knew Shostakovich personally. (This Russia trip was the subject of Johnson’s brilliant R3 documentary, Shostakovich: A Journey Into Light, the basis of this book.) Can his ‘I’ merge with that vast collective voice the philosopher Roger Scruton ascribed to Shostakovich as ‘We’; that heady, selfless state where joys and sorrows are felt as one, a variation on Vaughan Williams’s belief that ‘the art of music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation’?

Johnson’s encounter in St Petersburg with the clarinettist Viktor Kozlov brings him full circle. Kozlov, who was in the orchestra on that legendary first performance of Leningrad Symphony, recalls how musicians who could barely move their lips or fingers for hunger played Shostakovich’s electrifying score as if their lives depended on it. This was an act of defiance, a sign to the Nazis – the symphony was broadcast at them on huge speakers – that they remained undefeated: ‘We’re still standing!’ It’s a scene filled with pathos, inducing a flood of memories, with Kozlov, his teary wife beside him, grasping Johnson’s arm, a gesture of validation, of acceptance, of shared humanity. Johnson has his answer. ‘We’.

George Rafael Read the full review on Agora Classica


   Read full review   


To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.



Read more classical music reviews online here:



Classical Music, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing