Book Reviews 49
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The name Stephen Johnson will probably be familiar to UK readers of the Journal, in particular those for whom BBC Radio 3 is a regular place of refuge from the plethora of speech-driven channels that dominate the audio-visual landscape today. Johnson’s best-known programme is the Discovering Music series, but he is a prolific broadcaster with several hundred programmes and documentaries to his name. This includes, from 2006 (at the time of the Shostakovich Centenary), a radio documentary (A Journey into Light) in which Johnson relates his battle with serious clinical depression (later diagnosed as bipolar disorder). In the programme, he explained that it was the music of Shostakovich that helped him to survive.
Twelve years on and in this new book Johnson writes about the background to that documentary, and relates, with touching precision, some of his experiences in interviewing participants, especially in Russia. Additionally, Johnson explores in considerable detail the power of Shostakovich’s music to penetrate the grim blackness of Stalin’s Terror, and to speak to the individual. Most significantly, he repeatedly returns to the notion of belonging—the core sense of being a “We” and not an “I”; a collective, shared emotion. It is the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that provides an undeniable healing effect for sufferers of mental illness, Johnson argues.
In the earlier part of the book, Johnson draws on encounters with original members of the orchestra who performed the “Leningrad” Symphony during the infamous WWII siege, with much passion, humility, and, once more, a sense of belonging, of sharing, of “We.”
One of the overwhelmingly striking aspects of this book is Stephen Johnson’s highly personal standpoint—this is no third-party, finely tuned, antiseptic account of personal trauma. He describes his fraught and punishing childhood—his mother suffered from severe mental instability, and his father, unable to cope, simply opted out. Johnson exposes his early awareness of mental problems, which are again described in poignant detail; however, his ability to express his internal anguish was suppressed in a desperate attempt to avoid upsetting his mother. The escape he found in music, and very specifically in Shostakovich’s works, infuses the very fabric of the book, as Johnson strives to understand the relationship between music and the human brain—especially the reasons why it appears that the solace offered by the blackest, most tragic of the composer’s oeuvre is amplified in works such as the Eighth Quartet and the Fourth Symphony.
Hence the book seeks and considers writings from a broad spectrum of specialists, most notably the late Paul Robertson, the former violinist of the Medici Quartet, who worked extensively on studying the relationship of music both to medicine and to the subconscious, including “Brain Mapping” and “The Musical Brain” (Robertson observed music’s beneficial effects in psychiatric wards when the quartet played to deeply troubled patients). Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are also prominent figures in Johnson’s analysis, as are psychotherapists such as Susie Orbach, and neurologists such as Oliver Sacks. Interwoven with conversations with and writings from the above are Johnson’s reflections on his own experience, and very specifically where he is convinced that Shostakovich’s music helped him survive the profound traumas related to bipolar disorder. As the front cover of the book states, “I sensed the glimmering of a possibility. If Shostakovich could find the ‘method’, the thread of logic, in his teeming, cascading thoughts, then perhaps I could, too.”
Johnson’s views regarding the continuing hullabaloo around certain aspects of Shostakovich’s life and work—notably the truthfulness of Testimony and the continuing profiling of Shostakovich as the simple communist lackey or Shostakovich the secret dissident—are that such considerations are far too simplistic, much too superficial. To illustrate the tortuous, life-sustaining balancing act to which many artists were condemned, Johnson quotes from Nadezhda Mandelstam, who experienced the terrible years of persecution and torment of the late 1930s, at the time the Fifth Symphony rang out: “It was essential to smile – if you didn’t, it meant you were afraid or discontented. This nobody could afford to admit if you were afraid, then you must have a bad conscience.”
A literary idée fixe that runs through the book emanates from Kafka’s dark parable Metamorphosis, an extract from which prefaces the book: “And yet his sister played so beautifully. Her face was turned to the side, intently and sadly following the notes on the page. Gregor crept forward a little further, keeping his head near to the ground so that his eyes could meet hers. How could he be a brute beast, if music could make him feel like this?”
And it’s this notion of the strength and power that music can embrace, and its ability to provide a figurative “ladder” out of the mental abyss in which trapped sufferers find themselves, that Johnson expounds, time after time, in most persuasive fashion.
But what exactly is this book? Who are its target readers? And how, in practical terms, might its carefully chosen, skilfully crafted passages help, or dare I say, inform or entertain? Most readers of this review will be aware of the context in which the Fourth and Tenth Symphonies and the Eighth Quartet were written and how Shostakovich chose to “survive” the purges of the 1930s through the apparently conformist pages of the Fifth Symphony. They will also know the harrowing story of the Leningrad siege, and the vital role that the Seventh Symphony played in lifting the spirits of the beleaguered population. Where I believe that Johnson’s book is ground-breaking is in his ability not only to contextualise the composer’s works both historically and politically, but to look at exactly how “Shostakovich speaks to us,” and how that expressiveness can influence our state of mind, and encourage us to seek that ladder, out of life’s grim banality—or worse. Just as Johnson concludes his book:
“I am sixteen, and I’m striding, stamping, pounding my way across the West Pennine Moors. The weather is bracing: sudden gusts of wind, tattered low clouds racing across the sky, occasional brief flurries of sharpsided rain. It suits my mood perfectly. My head is full of the end of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. In my mind’s ear I can hear it all in studio clarity. I’m half-roaring, half-spluttering along with it. I’m glad there’s no one around to see me. But–of this I’m quite sure–I don’t feel alone. Shostakovich knows what I am feeling. His music assures me of that. Perhaps he knows better than I do. But he has
given me something else as well. He has given me his community: half-imagined, half- real. As he says [in Testimony], in the Fourth Symphony’s last pages it’s all set out rather precisely. There is a great choir that I can join: a choir of grief, rage, and determination to survive. Where it is, I don’t know yet, but I know that it is. And while the music lasts, I am part of it, one voice amongst many. Somewhere out there is a We to which I belong. The thought is comforting, sustaining, indescribably uplifting. When the final bars have faded into silence, I stand still for a moment. I am not worthless, despicable, insignificant, unworthy to be heard; how can I be, if music can make me feel like this?”
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Bernd Feuchtner’s career has included being a publicist, an opera director, and a drama expert, as well as a broadcaster and lecturer. In addition, he has a wide knowledge of politics and philosophy. This collection, which draws on that work from 1988–2017, shows his knowledge of Shostakovich’s life and works, but also relates his music to a number of other topics. The original texts have been revised slightly for this publication and are not presented in chronological order. As Feuchtner himself admits, he occasionally returns to topics dealt with elsewhere, resulting in some inevitable repetitions.
The book deals with various aspects of Shostakovich’s music through the theoretical work of Theodor W. Adorno, Hanns Eisler, and Bertold Brecht; and also through the practical work of Rudolf Barshai, Gustav Mahler, Benjamin Britten, and others. Adorno and Eisler’s texts demand awareness of the political and philosophical context of the time, as well as an understanding of Shostakovich’s frame of mind.
Feuchtner’s work is perhaps best illustrated by the lecture Scherzo, Ironie, Satire und tiefere Bedeutung-Schuld und Unschuld der Ironie beim frühen Schostakowitsch (2015). This piece, which includes seven musical examples, posits Mahler as a major influence on Shostakovich. Feuchtner describes in this article how Shostakovich’s critical self-consciousness grows when it concerns irony and satire in music. After an introduction about humour in literature and music, as well as the audience’s reaction to same, Feuchtner opens the article with works of the composer’s youth: Scherzo, op.7, and the First Piano Concerto, opus 35. For a better understanding, Feuchtner illustrates his theories with musical examples to show how Shostakovich’s innocent yet witty humour develops into biting sarcasm with hidden meanings.
The book approaches Shostakovich’s works kaleidoscopically, which can be a challenge for the musicologist as much as for the Shostakovich lay-devotee. Nevertheless, the musical illustrations are necessary and key to understanding Feuchtner’s arguments.
Henny van der Groep