Stephen Johnson - How Shostakovich Changed my Mind 2020

Reviewer: Gary, August 2020

HSCMM is a typically modern book in its genre, and as the name implies, a large portion of it is devoted to what might be called 'confession'.

Normally, I despise the modern trend for self-disclosure more than anyone, and given that I had never previously heard of Mr Johnson (he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, that digital litmus test of celebrity), I thought it astonishingly presumptuous that he should expect me to care about his mental life.

Nevertheless, I was spurred on by having the book brought up in conversation with a friend, and finding it a week later in the Waterstones on Piccadilly. I'll admit, too, that a little reluctant voyeurism was involved.

This turned out not to have been an unhappy coincidence. Yes, there's an awful amount of self-pity (indulgence?) in the book, but there's also a lot of interesting and semi-original content that Shostakovich fans will love.

Even at the worst of times, Johnson comes off as someone we can sympathize with; his genuine and earnest love of DS's music is such that you very quickly forget that what you're reading is part autobiography.

There are all the old stories that will be familiar to seasoned DS fans; 'Muddle instead of music', his denunciation at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov, the jaw-dropping premiere of the Seventh Symphony (Leningrad). These are all constructed in such good and compelling prose as to compensate for their lack of novelty.

Then there are little snippets of information that will come as a surprise to most readers; did you know his entire bedroom was full of clocks? Apparently, given the very real threat of a small-hours knock from the KGB, he found them reassuring.

There are also easygoing and non-technical analyses of his symphonies and other works, in terms that even I could just about understand. There is a lengthy and fascinating discussion of his Eighth String Quartet, a work which I was largely unfamiliar with before.

On the autobiographical side, Johnson discusses his frightful childhood, which had all the joy and innocence squeezed out of it by a mother with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (if I remember rightly). Johnson, as many precocious boys do, retreated into a world of art and knowledge, and found particular consolation in the music of DS. He is aware, of course, that DS's music does not make a likely antidepressant (this is one of the first points he addresses in the preface). Nevertheless, he seems to have found catharsis in the musical release of his suffering. I think we can all relate to this, and he quotes erudite literary sources, from Aristotle to the late Oliver Sacks, to explain the basis of this catharsis.

HSCMM is not a long book (my copy amounts to 148 pages), and it is not likely to be considered a literary classic any time in the future, but it is an immensely stimulating book that is a must-read (a cliché but I mean it) for all Shostakovich fans.