Art and artists can heighten our awareness of the world as well as diminish it. Art and artist oscillate between engagement and withdrawal, and ultimately, a resonance between artist, artwork, and people engaged with art. The arts evoke, real-ize, what for the most part cannot be conveyed in narrative, descriptive, or explanatory scholarship (though some instances of these have been described as “poetic”). Certainly, short stories and novels do create this sensate world of touch and being touched. The result can offer rich data for psychohistorical research.

What Can Music and Musicians Teach Psychohistorians?

The field of psychohistory, in its professional organizations and its journals—such as Clio’s Psyche, The Journal of Psychohistory, and The Applied Anthropologist—is exceptional in that it has made room in its conferences and publications for the inclusion of poetry. In this essay, I shall explore how this can also hold true for music and musicians. Because classical music has occupied the center of my life and self from the outset, making it the musical genre I know best, I shall limit my offerings here.

My approach will be to offer four examples by telling stories on musical themes, gleaning from each what it might contribute to psychohistory. I hope that the stories can work similarly to poetry in three ways: one, by resonating with and evoking the reader’s

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own stories and experiences about music and musicians; two, by teaching something about core issues and methods in psychohistory; and three, by adding depth and breadth to the reader’s immersion in music and musicians and their history. I suggest that music and musicians can be an endless source of data, depth, and understanding for psychohistorians.

My Father’s Truncated Career as Violinist

The violin was one of my father’s first and lifelong loves. Born in 1906, Charles D. Stein was one of eight children of Rumanian Jewish immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape persecution and poverty in the late 1890s. In what dad called the Chicago ghetto, all the children had to help support the struggling family by selling chewing gum and candy in their childhood. Dad’s mother quickly noticed his musical talent and, despite the family’s struggles to make ends meet, encouraged his study of the violin with local teachers. Quickly, he became an accomplished musician and violin teacher in Chicago, getting to know musical luminaries such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) music director Frederick Stock and the eminent musicologist and critic Felix Borowski. He was permitted to attend rehearsals as well as concerts of the CSO.

By the late 1920s, in the midst of the Great Depression, and the early 1930s, Charles felt he needed additional training and the sponsorship of violinists and violin teachers in Europe. When he was ready to go to Europe, Hitler and National Socialism swept over Germany; violent anti-Semitism was rampant. European Jews fled or eventually were killed. My dad’s hopes to launch a major career as a violinist in Europe were dashed. Likewise, a flourishing career in the U.S. was impossible. He did perform with bands such as Ted Weems while also learning and promoting the theremin in the 1930s, but ultimately, he married my mom and spent the rest of his career as a dry-goods businessman in the factory town near Pittsburgh where I grew up. Throughout my childhood, his beloved violin mostly stayed silent in its case. Perhaps a few times a year he would take it out and begin to practice, but he quickly gave it up.

But dad’s heart never left the violin and classical music. He would occasionally take me to concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, about ten miles from Coraopolis, where we lived in my maternal grandfather’s apartment building—the only thing he did not lose in the Depression. Our apartment was above dad’s store. In the long evenings when dad would work at his card table on pa-

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perwork for his business, he would almost always listen to classical music on our small radio. I would often keep him company, or do homework while sitting in an old stuffed chair by him in the living room, listening to music with him.

Despite his many disappointments in life and frequent rages at home about his unhappy marriage and feeling trapped, my moments with him listening to classical music on that small, old radio—not limited to violin music—are some of my sweetest memories of him as well as where a lot of my love for and admiration of him come from. I will never forget how, one evening in his old age, he brought out his beloved violin; I clumsily accompanied him at our old spinet piano as we made our way completely through a Mozart violin concerto.

The reader with an ear and eye for psychohistory can readily glean fragments of psychobiography, family relationships, father-son relationships, and turning points in life based on historical context, ambivalence, profound disappointment, grief, hope, despair, and resilience that in my story all orbit around classical music and musicians. If at first glance this vignette seems far removed from large-scale projects that many psychohistorians engage in, it quickly becomes clear how one musician’s life is entwined with world events, including their unconscious underpinnings.

Dimitri Shostakovich as a “Lightning Rod” for Censorship and Terror in Stalin’s U.S.S.R.

The music of Dmitri Shostakovich (e.g., symphonies, quartets, concertos, operas, and piano music) has drawn me to him for many decades. Shostakovich’s music is ruthlessly honest, offering raw sentiment that disdains sentimentality as well as giving away secrets filled with protest and mockery, even as (in his supposedly “repentant” Fifth Symphony) the surface gives the appearance of compliance. He represented the cultural, historical, and political Reality Principle even when he seemed to bow to Stalin’s enforced populistic aesthetic—and the threat of disfavor if not death.

To countless Russian people during Stalin’s purges, staged “show” trials and executions, starvation of millions of Ukrainians, and terrorizing of his own people, Shostakovich became a cultural hero who, through his musical voice, in turn, gave them a voice. His music bore witness to the truth of Stalin’s brutality and absolute control. Shostakovich’s truths were the antithesis of Stalin’s lies, secrecy, and propaganda. Countess Russians under Stalin’s heavy

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oppression knew that, during World War II, while Hitler and the Nazis were Shostakovich’s ostensibly terrible enemy embodied in his music, Stalin, tyrant and murderer of millions of his own people, was the unthinkable, unsayable villain beneath the official propaganda of the Great Patriotic War. Shostakovich’s music often had the gift of simultaneously giving away the whole secret while purporting to follow the Party line in keeping and celebrating the secret. Most Russians knew Shostakovich’s musical “code.”  The “uses” to which Shostakovich’s music has been put serve to remind us that at its best, music can express genuine sentiment, in turn deepening human experience; and at its worst, it can be a tool of political propaganda, hate, and even genocide, in turn shallowing and narrowing human experience.

Stalin, his Composer’s Union, Central Committee, and Party, vacillated wildly in their acclaim and celebration of Shostakovich alongside their condemnation and ostracism of him. He was a popular, useful tool whom they awarded with the highest state honors when he seemed to glorify them as well as the Motherland and the Party. The Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), written during the worst of the German invasion and the 872-day siege of Leningrad, is an example of this. However, when his music did not serve, even contradicted, their propagandistic purposes, Shostakovich immediately fell out of their grace, was officially condemned, and feared for his life. His supposedly now “anti-proletariat” music was suddenly absent from concerts.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Eighth Symphony represented music that was anathema to Stalin’s Soviet aesthetic ideology of the so-called people’s music that, say, Aram Khachaturian’s music constantly displayed. For instance, Stalin and his followers were disappointed and enraged that Shostakovich’s somewhat gentle, understated, and humorous Ninth Symphony did not possess the triumphant scale and grandeur they expected him to write to celebrate the Soviet victory over Hitler and his destructive forces.

All this is valuable psychohistorical data. Psychodynamically, the work of splitting, projection, and projective identification had an unusual “twist” to it in the relationship between Shostakovich, his music, and Stalin and his unwavering loyalists. The emotional charge or valence of Shostakovich could suddenly and radically switch from idealization and adulation when he was in favor of Stalin’s regime to demonization and condemnation when he fell

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out of favor with them. When he was idealized, he was acclaimed and celebrated as us. When he was censured and vilified, he was repudiated and ostracized as them (not us).

The beloved us and the despised them were wrapped in a specific ideological language. “Soviet Realism” was the code term (euphemism) for music for the proletariat; it glorified the nation (Motherland) and extolled Stalin. Its opposite foes were “Western formalism” and “bourgeois decadence.”  These terms were widely used by Stalin, his music critics, and the Union of Soviet Composers. They encompassed all the arts, not only music. Thus, unlike the more common and familiar long-lived and absolute split and projective identification between groups into us equals good and them equals bad, Shostakovich’s image oscillated projectively between being all-good and all-bad. He lived on political quicksand, in constant dread of falling into disfavor. A similar dynamic is at the root of my next story.

Musical Camps and Schools 

If Melanie Klein had not pioneered her psychoanalytic concepts of splitting and projective identification from her analyses of children’s play, these central insights could have been gleaned by exploring Western classical music and musicians’ lives with an ear and eye to the influence of the unconscious process. The deep personal (not only musical) rifts between individual composers, together with the devoted “schools” who formed around them, and the equally acrimonious relationships between performing musicians (ranging from conductors to individual instrumental musicians), are a continuous strand through the history of Western classical music. Us versus them, with the inherent love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, closed boundaries (people, aesthetics), opposition, and expression in organizational politics, is rife in the history of music and of musicians. Several familiar examples must suffice here.

Many composers, critics, and audiences in Western Europe, disparaged and rejected the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as “too Russian.”  To many Russian composers, their followers, and music critics, Tchaikovsky’s compositions were condemned and dismissed as “too Western.”  He belonged or fit in neither place; in both, he was an outsider. Although Tchaikovsky’s music is now performed and beloved worldwide, there still lingers the vitriol of the split, which caused much suffering in the composer who was caught in the middle. The music of Tchaikovsky was trapped in yet

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another split, both personal and inter-national: that between his music and that of Johannes Brahms, and between their respective cadres of advocates. Brahms also occupied one pole of yet a second, far more vitriolic split: that between the aesthetic supporters of Brahms and Richard Wagner.

Many Russian composers, musicians, and critics felt that Tchaikovsky’s music embodied genuine sentiment, the “Russian soul,” while the music of Brahms left them absent of feeling. They experienced Brahms’ music as soulless, shallow, obsessed with structure, and lacking substance—an academic and cerebral exercise. In short, it encapsulated all that was flawed in Western European cultures but embodied in the “Slavic Soul.”  For their part, many people in the Brahmsian “school” felt the music of Tchaikovsky to be overly sentimental, self-indulgent, self-pitying, lacking structure, and too Eastern. The oppositional process of either/or, us/them, is unmistakable, expressed in a musical idiom. In both instances, the Other type of music embodied all that was wrong and distasteful about music, culture, and life itself.

The musical, aesthetic, and philosophical chasm between Brahms and Richard Wagner, as well as their respective “camps,” shared much in common with the split between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Moreover, in Germany, Brahms had as his advocate and defender the well-known and influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, whose Jewishness added rancor to Wagnerians. Hanslick disliked Wagner’s music. As a kind of musical revenge, Wagner personified and ridiculed Hanslick as the musical rule-ridden, legalistic anachronism in the character of Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg), first performed in 1868.

Oppositions and acrimonious divisiveness characterized the relationships between the two factions, although Brahms personally respected much of Wagner’s music. Conservative versus progressive are ideological labels used to characterize the chasm between styles; although in practice and the lives of the two composers, the distinction is not always clear-cut. Cognate oppositions are classicist versus futurist; stodgy, stale, and old-fashioned versus exciting; adhering to static classical form versus leading the way into evolving form, fluid. To Wagner and his followers, Wagner, the mystic, steeped in the folklore of Medieval Europe and Norse mythology, represented music’s future, stretching tonality to its limit, breaking conventional musical form. To this new school of musical revolu-

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tionaries, Brahms’ compositions represented out-worn classical tradition.

Wagner’s music took romanticism in the direction of expressionism (best exemplified by composers such as Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler). By contrast, Brahms’s romanticism was imprisoned in classical-era structures and reached for its inspiration even further back to Baroque composers, chiefly Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel. To Wagnerians, Wagner was refreshingly progressive, while Brahms was hopelessly regressive. To the eminent conductor Hans von Bulow, Brahms’ First Symphony was “Beethoven’s Tenth [Symphony],” successor to the mighty Ninth and heir to the classical lineage of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. Robert Schumann, Brahms’ mentor and champion, saw Brahms as the continuity and leading edge of classical music.

Members of both these two opposing musical styles and ideologies saw themselves as time’s arrow toward the future. They idealized their composer and music and impugned the ideologies and music of others. They despised and ridiculed the music and people in the opposing musical idiom. The deeply devout Roman Catholic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, who was devoted to Wagner, “translated” Wagner’s expansiveness and chromaticism from opera into the idioms of symphonies, masses, and other liturgical music. Bruckner was often caught in the cross-fire of the two mutually exclusive musical languages and political camps.

At a deeper level, the musicological history of this polarization in music and musicians is a psychohistorical example of us/them splitting between groups throughout history and cross-culturally. Unconscious splitting, projection, and projective identification go a long way in helping us to understand if not also to partly explain the good versus evil emotional charge between the Wagner and Brahms circles, and between the Brahms and Tchaikovsky blocs. Further, psychobiographies of leaders and loyalists could also take our understanding of the rift much deeper. Music is far more than an art form, and musicians are far more than just composers and performers. Mercifully, by now, the rigid boundaries between the Brahmsians and Wagnerians, and between the Tchaikovskians and Brahmsians, have become permeable. Orchestral and chamber concerts often feature on the same program music of composers that were once unthinkable to appear together.

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Gustav Mahler: “The Most Important Music is Not in the Notes”

In this final, and brief, section, I will consider two statements long ascribed to composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. As a renowned conductor, the pinnacle of his career was his decade as music director of the Vienna State Opera (1897-1907), despite rampant anti-Semitism in Vienna. He is known today as a great late romantic/early modernist composer of symphonies and German Lieder (songs). Here I will say less about his life and work as a conductor and composer, then I will discuss two profound musically, aesthetically, and psychohistorical thoughts in words that he had about music itself.

I wish first to place this discussion in my personal context: The music of Gustav Mahler has long influenced my inner emotional life as well as my life as a psychohistorical scholar and poet. I first heard much of Mahler’s music as a child and college student when I attended concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Steinberg, who championed and performed Mahler’s music throughout his career. Mahler’s Lieder and symphonies resonate with the rawness, yearning, despair, hope, and love of Nature that are at my core.

Two of his ideas in words have abided with me and have rung true since I first heard them many decades ago. The first is something to the effect that “The most important part of the music is not in the notes.”  The second is his alleged response to the question of why he wrote music, something to the effect of, “If I could say it in words, I wouldn’t have to write music.”  Both these ideas also are at the center of psychoanalytic thought and clinical practice and pervade psychohistory.

Although Mahler’s life was built on music and music-making, in these two statements, he implicitly addressed the role of language, symbolism, and metaphor throughout human life. If Mahler’s profound music (some with text, voice, and chorus) is not written and contained in the notes (the musical score), where is it located? Much like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Mahler was alluding to a realm of thought and emotion “behind” or “between” or “beyond” the notes or words. I think of that universe as the space(s) between letters and words in spoken and written language. Or perhaps Mahler was alluding to a depth beneath the surface (which does not mean that surface is necessarily superficial or inconsequential). Surface (the notes) is the beginning, not the end, nor the

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ultimate meaning or destination. The notes cannot tell you how to evoke and “perform” the music. The notes are not the music.

Further, Mahler tells us that the idiom or medium of word language is not sufficient, inadequate, to convey the meanings and feelings that only some other form of communication—for Mahler, music—can transmit. Perhaps a poet, who does rely on words, which includes the writer of this essay, would say that lineal, narrative, rational word language cannot convey the lived experience that poetry can. Some poetry is even often called musical, and music is often called poetic! Even great narrative writing—from scholarly and clinical to fictional—is often spoken of as poetic.

The same can be said of paintings, charcoals, sculptures in stone or metal, carvings in wood or stone, movies/videos and other visual art, pre-literate societies’ cave and wall paintings and carvings, etc. Mahler is telling us in words that there are many ways of knowing, of knowledge on different (complementary) planes of life, that some ways can create a resonance between, say, composer, musicians, and audience, that are better than others for that realm.

Conclusions: Continuing the Journey

To conclude: How might this discussion of lived and evoked worlds in composing and performing music be translated into research, scholarship, and writing in psychohistory? As a poet and narrative scholar in psychohistory and in applied anthropology, I know—and many other psychohistorians have confirmed this to me from their own lives and work—that writing poetry about the many facets of history (e.g., psychobiography, group fantasy/culture, and caregiver-baby relationships) that poetry can offer a source and realm of research data different from the realm of narrative scholarship. The realms are not mutually exclusive; instead, they complement and amplify each other.

Finally, by extension, and most importantly, music and musicians can be a treasure trove of psychohistorical data, at profound levels of human experience and history, that conventional historical, social science, and even to an extent psychoanalytic scholarship cannot access. Music and music-making are yet another foundation psychohistory can build upon.

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Howard F. Stein

Howard F. Stein, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has contributed many poems and articles to the Journal of Psychohistory, Clio’s Psyche, and many other print and online literary journals/magazines over many years. He authored 32 books, including recently two of poetry, as well as The Psychodynamics of Toxic Organizations: Poetry, Stories, Analysis (2020), which he co-authored with Seth Allcorn. Dr. Stein may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Stein, H. F. (2023). Music, musicians, and psychohistory: Beyond the notes. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 123-132.

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