Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

From roughghosts

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.

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NPR – ‘How Shostakovich Changed My Mind’ Touches On The Music-Body Connection


Dmitri Shostakovich, Russian composer

Dmitri Shostakovich, Russian composer-member of the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific conference for World Peace, plays the second movement of his Fifth Symphony at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 27, 1949.
Marty Lederhandler/AP

Many years ago, a relative of mine used the term “music-intense” in conversation to describe a musician we both knew.

I think it’s also an apt descriptor for BBC music broadcaster Stephen Johnson. His remarkably diverse aesthetic and personal sensitivity are on full display in his new book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind.

Johnson’s primary focus is Dmitri Shostakovich’s music and how it relates to his personal struggle with mental well-being and a challenging family dynamic. Almost right away, he addresses what I wondered when I first stumbled upon the book: Why Shostakovich, of all composers, to buoy him in troubled times? After all, the the 20th-century Russian composer who made his art under the Soviet shadow — is best known for music that is often grim, intense, brooding, knotty, and heavily serious, though, it should be said, not without many moments of humor and formal nose-thumbing.

Johnson writes candidly about how Shostakovich took him to places inside himself that were seemingly impossible to access without music. It was the complex dark passion of so much of Shostakovich’s music that made that difference for him. And he’s not the only one. He relates that as part of a trip to Russia to make a radio documentary for the centenary of the composer’s birth; he interviews Viktor Kozlov, a clarinetist and one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that originally performed Shostakovich’s epic Seventh Symphony in war-torn Leningrad in 1942, a work that became known by the city’s name. Johnson relates just how meaningful the performance was to beleaguered and brutalized Soviet citizens living under Nazi siege.

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Wall Street Journal – Music and Madness: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind

By Norman Lebrecht

In August 1942, with emaciated corpses littering the streets and German guns booming all night long, Joseph Stalin decided that what Leningrad needed most was to hear the seventh symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. The thunderous work had been premiered a few months before in Kubyshev, a city in Russia’s interior to which the composer had been evacuated. The symphony had already been heard in Britain and the U.S. in broadcast performances conducted by Henry Wood and Arturo Toscanini. Bring it to Leningrad under German siege would be both an act of defiance and a triumph of propaganda.

The city’s radio orchestra filled out its ranks with music teachers, ex-players and amateurs. The concert, conducted by Karl Eliasberg on Aug. 9 – the day Hitler had designated for Leningrad’s surrender – was beamed at the German army through giant loudspeakers. Hearing the music, a German officer is supposed to have muttered: “We’ll never beat these people.” Although the siege lasted another 18 months, Leningrad held out until the Germans were pushed back.

Roughly 60 years later, Stephen Johnson, a BBC journalist, interviews the clarinet player in that Leningrad performance, Viktor Kozlov, asking him what he felt when he heard the Leningrad symphony today. Kozlov, with his wife alongside him, burst into tears. “It’s not possible to say,” he sobs.

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Classic FM: Book of the Month: Wagner his Life and Music

by Malcolm Hayes

Yet another introduction to Wagner? Yes, but there have been very few as good as this one. For all the punter friendly format, the quality and insight of Stephen Johnson’s writing also offers much food for thought to experienced Wagner buffs. Here’s one example: he points out that in Tristan und Isolde, the loosening of the traditional ties of classical rhythm is at least as radical and significant as the music’s much-heralded loosening of tonality. Exactly so. Rightly, Johnson in o way glosses over Wagner’s unsavoury side – the egomaniac opportunism, the anti-Semitism. Just as rightly, he presents these qualities within the wider fact of the composer’s wondrous musical achievement.

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