Howard Stein’s explanation of Shostakovich’s compositions and Stalin’s reaction elude me. I have never understood why his music so irritated the Red Regime because the meaning of it has never been clear to me on its own. Inferring a composer’s intentions solely from his music has always struck me as inventive. Only his or her program notes or private writings can reveal his compositional purpose.

I too have affection for Shostakovich’s music, but it derives from a special moment—a performance of his Symphony No. 8 under the baton of Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic at Symphony Hall in Boston one Sunday afternoon on February 1, 1970. After the concert, which was picketed by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, I encountered two Zionist siblings. I had dated the woman and decided to call her later that week. During our telephone conversation, she mentioned a friend who taught high school social studies and earned as much as I who was about to defend my dissertation and receive the terminal degree. I pried the woman’s telephone number from her, called, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Later in 1970, the woman with whom I’ve been married for 51 years and I bought our first Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) subscription when William Steinberg became conductor and Michael Tilson Thomas the wunderkind assistant conductor. My wife and I attended the last Tanglewood concert of the 2022 summer

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season where Thomas, who is battling glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer, diagnosed and operated on a year ago, conducted a glorious Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. A promoter of 20th century music when we first heard him at the BSO 1970-74 when we held our first subscription series, he found solace the past year in the music of Mozart and Schubert, which would be my choices with Haydn chamber works added when it is closing time for me. Shostakovich will not be played at my memorial service.

Here’s the rub. I am tone-deaf and cannot recreate a tune that I sometimes hear correctly in my head. Yet classical music became a staple in my life in my mid-20s. Does this reflect 55 years of underlying dishonesty (i.e., a self-delusional psyche) or a genuine paradox that goes to the heart of who I am? Is it the elitist dimension of classical music that attracts me to it or do I really relish my listening experience? At this stage, does it matter? Is it worthwhile to investigate it, or am I better off emotionally just accepting it?

I pushed off taking music appreciation as one of the art requirements for college graduation until my senior year. I disliked the course but was enthralled by the graduate teaching assistant, a bear of a man who earned his doctorate and became a beloved musicologist at a major Boston university. He introduced us to Bruno Walters’ Beethoven symphonies, which I eventually bought for myself on CD. Because of him, I did open myself to the music. At Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, where I pursued my doctorate in history, I heard a couple of memorable concerts, one featuring Andre Watts, the other Jan Peerce in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Still, professional sports were my central avenue of escape from the drudgery of the graduate curriculum.

So how did this lifelong appreciation for classical music and psychohistory converge? The music arrived first serendipitously. I commuted to Harvard’s Library daily from my parents’ home 20 miles west for several months to do genealogical research on some 300 men who served in the Virginia legislature from 1660 to 1710. I traveled in a 1956 Chevy that had no FM radio band. AM stations were saturated with commercials, but at 1330 AM, WCRB, located in Waltham along my non-toll daily route of 50 to 60 minutes, played whole symphonies without breaks. I could stop there and pick up for free a monthly program guide that was punctilious in naming pieces being played at any time of day. I got hooked. The

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music counterpoised my fear of failure, which ran deep. Were I not to finish my dissertation, I would be eligible for the military draft and service in the loathsome Vietnam War.

I stuck it out and finished. My dissertation ignored psychology. As the title indicated (Virginia House of Burgesses: The Social, Educational, and Economic Bases of Political Power), it treated motivation as I had been taught in grad school, as mainly a calculus of interests, both articulated and underlying, which referenced invariably economic pulsations. After completing the work and obtaining my degree I had the freedom of not publishing right away and could ask deeper questions about the motivations of my subjects. How could I plumb the minds of a large group of men? Irving Harris’s The Promised Seed (1964) provided me with a pathway—the ordinal position of the men I had researched. He postulated a distinctive upbringing and psyche for eldest sons, with whom parents normally invested a lot of time and direct interaction. Consequently, first-born sons tended to be verbally advanced, risk-averse, conservative, and driven toward high achievement. They invariably seek parental approval. The psychological development of first-born sons was considerably predictable, especially during a time when they were favored by their landowning fathers who treated younger sons less generously. Birth order theory became my entry into psychology, a subject I had never studied in college or graduate school.

Shostakovich was the second child but the eldest son and displayed the precocity that one usually associates with that ordinal position. Generally, rebelliousness does not come easily to the first-born, and this was the case with him as well. When Stein writes that Shostakovich’s compliance with Stalin’s brutal regime was a deception and that he soon became a hero to survivors and opponents, he perhaps mistakes the composer’s initial response as a sham rather than a need to please authority, the proclivity of eldest sons. That he fell out of favor with the Stalinists says more about the vicissitudes of their reign of terror than of his music.

Coincidentally at our opening subscription series at Boston Symphony last Friday (9/30/2022), Shostakovich’s two piano concertos were the featured pieces. At dinner with friends afterward, my wife, who has a fine ear and can recreate melodies, explained that we subscribe also to a theater series because her preference is a play, which she finds to be more cerebral. In contrast, I like music, which appeals to me emotionally, even spiritually. Why is classical

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music so integral to my psychic well-being? I really don’t know the answer, but savory sounds usually soothe my psyche and render me at peace. To play Shostakovich while the Stalinist-like Putin conducts his murderous campaign in Ukraine, from where my mother and her family came, however, is like being in a time warp in which 20th and 21st centuries have melded into their most inhumane elements. It is a world that can frighten one out of any complacency that intellect and success would be expected to provide.

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Martin Quitt

Martin Quitt, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book is Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and he can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Quitt, M. (2023). Classical music, psychohistory, and me. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 138-141.

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