Can Shostakovich affect the balance of your mind?

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, I review the newly issued US edition of Stephen Johnson’s extraordinary account of music and mental illness, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind.

Extract:
Mr. Johnson, we learn from his book, suffers from a bipolar condition. He grew up in a dysfunctional family with a depressive father and a violent mother with a severe personality disorder. As a boy, he recalls, “I had to lock myself away to avoid destabilising Mother. . . . If I could have voiced the commandment I unconsciously repeated to myself during that period, it would have been: ‘I must not feel, I must not feel.’ ” Music, he says, was the only space where he could indulge feeling. In his early teens, Mr. Johnson discovered Shostakovich’s fourth symphony… Memorising the symphony—and reveling in its “terrifying mood-swings” and explicit existential threats—Mr. Johnson ran it through his head as a kind of soundtrack as he cycled home from school. “Living with your mother,” his therapist-wife would volunteer, “must have been like that Symphony.”
Read on here.

 

 

 

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  • Stephen Johnson has always been one of the , if not the, most perceptive commentators on musical issues on BBC Radio 3. He has been brave enough never to have made any secret of his battle with depressive illness, and I do hope that his recovery will be maintained, and that he will go on educating and entertaining us for many years

  • The power of music is that it may get the listener in touch with parts of his psyche which, for some reason, cannot function within the normal entirity of the personality. It is a psychological art, the horizon of which embraces all possible human inner experiences, even the devastating nihilism and threatening unreality of Soviet society, which Shostakovich expressed so effectively. All the more remarkable that this state of mind also fully resonates with people in the free, wealthy West, and one does not have to suffer from psychic disorders to understand it.

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