by Anne Simpson

Clinical depression is the fathomless black hole inside a person’s head. Three times in his life the journalist Stephen Johnson has been its victim, his entire life being trapped in a hopelessness which seemed beyond control. But in Journey into the Light (Radio 3, Sunday), he wrenchingly described how he has found escape through music. Not jaunty stuff but the huge, catastrophic dissonances of Shostakovich. Music so dark and convulsed in suffering it seemed to resonate with his own despair. Here was a remarkable programme which centred on Johnson’s pilgrimage from his Herefordshire garden to Moscow and St Petersburg, cities that shaped the composer’s work. This was a story that was soul-baring but not self-pitying in its transcendence out of ransacking melancholia. Yet, as Johnson’s Russian contributors affirmed, Dmitri Shostakovich’s music exploded from Stalinists horrors so brutal they were impossible for outsiders to grasp.

Thus Johnson asked himself what right had he to claim the composer for himself. The answer was simple: even from his inauspicious grave in Moscow, Shostakovich still gave his genius to anyone who stopped to listen. And in listening to, say, the Fourth Symphony or the Eighth Quartet, Paul Robertson, leader of the Medici Quartet noted: “You can see, from the painfulness, something beautiful has occurred.” A ladder outwards from somewhere extreme and desolate, he said. Johnson had found in Shostakovich “a helping hand” and Robertson had observed the same in psychiatric wards when the Medici musicians played to profoundly troubled patients. The music, in giving purpose to tragedy, consoled the hitherto inconsolable.