The title of this book seems to contain another, perhaps earlier title. It feels like it might have been called ‘How Shostakovich Changed The World’, only later downgraded to the more modest ambition of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind. But there is something to be said about this ambition and the usefulness of this book. I think its more modest ambition is, in a weird way, a much higher one.
In William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis famously declares: ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ Stephen Johnson’s remarkable essay-cum-memoir, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, claims the same for music, and particularly Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies and quartets: we listen, that is, to know we’re not alone. In Shostakovich’s music, Johnson finds a mirror for his own mental illness, trauma, near-suicide: ‘emotions and thoughts I had experienced as terrifying vast, chaotic and threatening acquired … a sounding form. In the midst of my long-drawn-out isolation, Shostakovich reassured me that I was not utterly alone. Someone else knew what I felt – perhaps even in some mysterious sense “heard” me.’
This extraordinary book is in part a memoir, in part an appreciation of the music of the great Dmitri Shostakovich (and a meditation on the composer’s life), and in large part also a heartfelt affirmation of the power of music to heal.
Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna Court Opera, where he was director until 1907. Photograph: DEA/A Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Image
Stephen Johnson ends this thrilling study of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 8, and much else besides, with a quotation attributed to Beethoven, of which Oscar Wilde would have approved: “Sometimes the opposite is also true.”
by Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director, Colorado MahlerFest, April 2020
During the Mahler anniversaries of 2010-11, Norman Lebrecht published a book called Why Mahler? Now, as then, even the most fervent Mahlerian might well ask of any book on this subject, “Why Another Book About Mahler?” Musicologist, author and lapsed cellist, Stephen Johnson, has given us a compelling answer in the form of his latest volume, The Eighth: Mahler and his World in 1910.
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is an extraordinary creature, vast in its ambitions and almost megalomaniacal in its demands. Eight top-rank vocal soloists; two large mixed choirs and a boys’ choir; 22 woodwinds; 17 brass; an offstage brass band of seven; nine percussion; celeste; piano; harmonium and organ; two harps; mandolin; and full strings to match…
“All my previous symphonies,” Mahler wrote, “are merely the preludes to this one. In the other works everything still was subjective tragedy, but this one is a source of great joy.” It was a huge success, crowds surging towards the platform after it had finished.
In The Eighth, Stephen Johnson leads us through all the complexities of the work with skill and sensitivity. It’s clearly a piece that he reveres. In its embrace of joy and spiritual uplift, it has been the most controversial of Mahler’s symphonies in our own day, lacking that juxtaposition of sublimity and the banal that makes the composer such a postmodern pin-up.
Johnson’s defence involves not only a journey through the piece itself, underlining the subtlety and complexity that defy the overkill; but also a look at the world from which it sprang and the extraordinary and tangled personal story which somehow, despite all that objective joy, it still embodies.
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.
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.
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.
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.