In his article “Music, Musicians, and Psychohistory: Beyond the Notes,” Howard Stein asserts that art and artists can heighten as well as diminish our awareness of the world and that what the arts tend to evoke “cannot be conveyed in narrative, descriptive, or explanatory scholarship.”  Posing the question, “What can music and musicians teach psychohistorians?” Stein offers four points based on musical themes that might contribute to psychohistory. He suggests that his connections to music will evoke “the reader’s own stories and experiences about music and musicians,” and add “depth and breadth to the reader’s immersion in music,

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 musicians and their history.”

As musicians, music educators, and classically trained clinicians, we are familiar with all the composers that Stein mentioned in his article. But what resonated with us the most was the information he shared about Dmitri Shostakovich and three of his symphonies: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 7, and Symphony No. 9. In college, we were music educators who studied Shostakovich and his music, along with many of the composers who were considered part of the late Romantic and early 20th century period. We listened to two of Shostakovich’s symphonies, No. 5 and No. 9, and (given our histories as African Americans who are musicians and music educators, and a clinician steeped in jazz music, who was born around the time Shostakovich completed Symphony No. 9) we are offering a commentary that reflects the experiences we had while listening to and internalizing the music.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5

Shostakovich completed this symphony in 1937 during the Great Purge in the Soviet Union. In an effort to solidify Stalin’s hold over the political landscape in the Soviet Union, several purge trials were held from 1936 through 1938, during which many prominent people, such as politicians, intellectuals, and, artists including musicians and composers, who allegedly did not adhere to party politics, were found guilty of treason and were jailed or executed. Shostakovich had already been denounced in 1936 for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, his comic ballet The Limpid Stream, and his Symphony No. 4, which was scheduled to premiere in late 1936 but was withdrawn. Shostakovich’s career (and possibly his freedom) was riding on a successful performance of this symphony.

We knew about the sonata-allegro form (first movement form), but we had not heard this symphony, and we wanted to experience the music void of any presuppositions related to it. In the first and second movements, we tried to pick out the two themes in the expositions and listened for the reworking of those themes in the development section of both movements. We listened for and tried to identify the reoccurrence of the main themes in the recapitulations of both movements. At the third movement, we were whisked beyond the notes to another place and time.

Written in a minor key, as were the first and second movements, this movement was slow and eerie, perhaps a reflection of the psychological space Shostakovich was in. As we listened to the

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slow-moving opening melody in the violins and the sustained chords in the cellos and basses, we no longer thought about identifying the themes. The music took us to the North Star Harriet Tubman had to use to get to the underground railroad and how terrifying it must have been for the slaves, traveling through the woods and swamps at night. This terror, fear, and pending horror of uncertainty was the existence of the context in Shostakovich’s life. The music was dark and ominous, and in the crescendos, we could hear the fear in the hearts of the slaves, looking at every turn, every bend in the path, and every shadow with suspicion and terror.

But just as the violins played a mournful long tutti melody that did not end until the cellos and bases entered with their support, the slaves under Harriet Tubman’s leadership did not stop, instead staying together, supporting each other, and kept on going as the fear continued to mount in their chests. They must have heard many unidentified sounds as they pressed forward to freedom. As the low strings played a petrifying low tremolo, we could see the slaves pressing forward. While the music ebbed and flowed, contrasting in tempo, dynamics, extreme pitches, dark colors, and opaque textures, we could feel the shared angst the slaves and Shostakovich must have felt as the slaves walked through the thicket, hand in hand by the water’s edge, and that Shostakovich felt under the pressure to compose an acceptable symphony to save his life. The slaves had the light of the moon as it cast sinister shadows in their paths; Shostakovich must have had a vision of freedom.

Then as the violins returned in the recapitulation with an ascending line, it was as if the sun began the rise toward the heavens, while the rest of the strings seemed to help clear the sky for it to shine through. Now in the first light of a new day, the slaves could see their progress. As the tonality shifted from minor to major, it brought a feeling of calm, empowering them to stop and rest because they sensed a fragile feeling of safety—but only for a while. By the time we got to the end of this movement, we were overcome with the emotion of our shared experiences and intrapsychic pain.

After being so absorbed in the third movement, the last movement was anticlimactic. It starts with a thunderous opening that moves at a breakneck pace until the mood changes in the middle by suddenly slowing to a mournful song featuring a gorgeous horn solo. Then the snare drum softly signals that the end is near as

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the opening theme returns in the low woodwinds, as if to say “I’m still here.”  Finally, the brasses enter, playing a triumphant fanfare supported by the strings playing a persistent unison ostinato, after which the percussion helps to bring the symphony to a loud, rousing conclusion. However, even with the changes in mood from a ferocious opening to a somber and emotive middle section, to the heroic brass and percussive ending, this movement could not surpass the feelings experienced from the music of the third movement.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9

Historically speaking, Shostakovich had intended a rather large work to celebrate Russia’s victory in World War II, much like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with orchestra, soloist, and chorus. These plans were formulated in October 1943. However, in January 1945, Shostakovich began work on a new Symphony No. 9 that had nothing to do with his original intentions. This Symphony No. 9 of 1945 is a delightful, and also powerful, work. It conveyed the message that we (the Soviet Union) have defeated Nazism, and Europe will now have to deal with us; we are now a world power.

The exposition of the first movement was powerful and very precisely conveyed, followed by a splendid development, and the recapitulation was nothing less than exquisite and to the point. The third, fourth, and fifth movements were played as one, and the ending was very powerful as it laid out the spirit of “Yes, we won this war, we’re now a world power, and we’re not going anywhere.”  This is not unlike Obama’s “Yes We Can.”

Many of the reviews of Symphony No. 9 were favorable, but Shostakovich felt that critics would delight in blasting it. Indeed, the Soviet critics berated Symphony No. 9 because it was too light and trivial and did not reflect the greatness of the Russian WWII victory over Nazi Germany. Stalin and the Soviet hierarchy were indeed expecting something on a much larger and more grandiose scale. However, in some instances, less is more! Many times, you can get your point across with fewer words—in this case, with fewer notes. Hearing and experiencing beyond the “notes” we can hear how the context and the influence of the psychological and social processes impact the musicians and composers.

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Janice Berry Edwards

Janice Berry Edwards, MSW, PhD, is a Professor in the School of Social Work at Howard University, and she is the President-elect of the American Association of Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. She can be contacted at .

John R. Lamkin II

John R. Lamkin, II, PhD, is the former Director of Bands and the coordinator of Music Education at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. All his academic degrees have been in Music Education. He can be contacted at .

Martin J. Lamkin

Martin J. Lamkin, MEd, is a retired music educator at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Lamkin II, J. R., Edwards, J. B., & Lamkin, M. J. (2023). A commentary by musicians/musician educators on Stein. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 134-138.

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