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Revisiting a wonderful book on the genius of Shostakovich @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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A timely recent arrival reminded me that however bad things feel at the moment, they could be an awful lot worse. That book was “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind” by Stephen Johnson, originally published in cloth-covered hardback by Notting Hill Editions, and now released in one of their beautiful paperback volumes.

I reviewed the original book on its original release for Shiny New Books and found it to be a wonderful and engrossing book. I’ve loved Shostakovich’s work for years, but this book is about *so* much more. I’m reprinting below part of my original review (you can read the full version here) and I’ll come back at the end!

“(in this book) Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues… Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted …Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable…

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music…Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!”

The original hardback edition

Revisiting the book I found my original opinion unchanged; if anything, I was moved more strongly second time round and once more drawn to go back to Shostakovich’s music, which is oddly cathartic right now. As the publisher reminded me, although we are living in unprecedented times, Shostakovich and the Russian people lived through unimaginable privations; humanity does tend to pull on reserves in times of great stress and danger, and I hope we will all be coping. Working from home and social distancing is odd, but we do have homes and food and plenty of entertainment.

Anyway. We also have books, which as I always say are my great comfort in times of need. This is one that I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough. Whether you prefer the lovely cloth-bound hardback or the pretty paperback with French flaps, I really hope you’ll track this one down and enjoy it! 😀

The genius of Shostakovich @shinynewbooks @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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I’ve been lucky enough not only to review some wonderful volumes for Shiny New Books, but also to read some real treats from Notting Hill Editions. Those two strands coincided in this really outstanding book which I was ridiculously excited about reading and reviewing!

I have a bit of an obsession with Shostakovich anyway, so I was probably the ideal reader for this one… An absorbing, moving and thought-provoking mixture of memoir, musicology and history, I found it unputdownable. You can read my review over on Shiny here!

I should add here as a coda to my review that I learned after its publication that author Stephen Johnson has put a page of audio reference clips on his website, which would be a useful aid for anyone reading the book, particularly if they aren’t literate in musical notation (like me!)

The clips can be found here:

https://www.stephen-johnson.co.uk/shostakovitch-clips/

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