by Michael Wilkinson, March 2020

This is a special book with extraordinary insights, beautifully expressed. It speaks not only to those who love Shostakovich, or even to every music lover, but it addresses the complexity of being human.

It is often said that music exists only in performance: a score is an inert gathering of marks on pages, awaiting realisation. But, of course, music exists to be heard. It makes itself – and always anew- in the mind of the hearer, note-by-note as it unfolds. And each listener hears it, even when it is familiar, always as a new event. That which was heard in the past no longer exists, but at most is remembered.

Many fine books on music are scholarly examinations of the music, revealing what we may find, what casual hearing may not notice, in the music to be studied. They lead us gently to the judgments we may choose to make.

But Stephen Johnson – a well-known commentator and writer on music – is here doing something different, exploring not as a musicologist the effect of Shostakovich on his own mind. The love he has for the music is apparent on every page, but he is tracing – the book is a series of reflections – the way the music affects his own, deeply troubled, mind. Thrice he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he suffers from the intense mood swings that accompany this illness, sometimes to the edge of suicide.

That Shostakovich was troubled cannot be denied. Not merely did he survive desperate and permanently dangerous times, but his own inner spirit was one profoundly affected. The interesting question at the heart of Johnson’s exploration is how the intensity of this music can speak to a troubled soul. After all, in Shostakovich we find no easy resolutions and often little hope, and the intensity of his high strings offers little evident comfort.

Johnson looks to a classical answer. Aristotle, in the Poetics, demonstrates powerfully the cathartic and enriching effect of Tragedy. As Johnson notes:

… tragedy is important because it can lead us to catharsis – ‘purging’ of our most painful emotions by the carefully engineered arousal of pity and fear. If this sounds like an ordeal, it is one that works for our good, says Aristotle. As with physical sickness, a good purging can make us feel much better afterwards, and perhaps prepare us better to deal with what life can throw at us. (p. 42)

Notice the ‘carefully engineered arousal’. Johnson notes how Shostakovich uses classical forms in his most intense utterances, notably, but not only in the orderly counterpoint of the Eighth Quartet, possibly his finest and most intense chamber work. As Johnson argues:

As in Bach, it is impossible to say where the ‘intellectual’ ends and the ‘emotional’ begins. The higher rational cortex and the emotional limbic system are at one: ‘complete harmony’. The balance may not endure, but for a moment we have glimpsed its possibility. And with Shostakovich we weep: partly from the depths of our own grief and pain, partly at the ‘wonder’ of it all. No, we are not brute beasts, but then neither are we rational abstractions. In that instant of harmony, we transcend the division. (pp. 114-5)

It is impossible for a brief review to do justice to the insights that teem from each page, as philosophical moments are interspersed with psychological insights – the range of scholarship is wide, but lightly worn – and snatches of autobiography. But there is much more than this: for the reader, too, it is a cathartic and curiously uplifting experience. It reminds us that we are not simply economic units, nor passive consumers of culture: there is an immense sense of human dignity and the infinite value of each of us, in all our troubles and errors.

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