Dmitri’s Beautiful Brain

A few weeks ago I was reading some online articles about neurological disorders. Why? Well, doesn’t everyone spend their free time reading up on irregular brain activity? Okay, maybe not ūüėõ Anyway, in the middle of a paragraph I spotted a mention about Dmitri Shostakovich. As a huge fan of the superb Russian composer, my interest was piqued. It seems that Shostakovich had, for the last 30 years of his life, a metal fragment lodged in the temporal lobe of his brain. In the fall of 1941, Shostakovich was living in Leningrad at the start of the Siege, the most prolonged, brutal, and catastrophic military assault of World War II and in all of history. Ineligible for military service due to poor eyesight, Shostakovich had been injured by German shrapnel while volunteering with the fire brigades. Years later, when doctors found the metal fragment through x-ray, Shostakovich declined to have it removed or dealt with in any way. He maintained that it “filled his head with melodies” and that the sounds changed when he tilted his head in different directions. With their patient refusing treatment, the doctors had no choice but to leave him be.

Dmitri Shostakovich outside his country cottage:

Dmitri Shostakovich Outsde His Dacha

A detailed study on the effects of a foreign object in the brain, particularly as it impacts creativity, would be fascinating, but probably far too clinical for a layperson like me to comprehend. What interests me about this story is that Shostakovich is at the center of it, because it’s impossible to imagine 20th century music without him and his brilliant, unique, expressive contributions. If he truly believed that the splinter of metal in his brain enhanced his composing and helped him “hear” the music, then of course he’d be happy to keep it with him. And when you consider the years of coercion and strong-arm intimidation the man had to endure at the hands of the Soviet government, a bit of shrapnel in his brain was the least of Shostakovich’s worries.

As much as I love this peculiar anecdotal story about Shostakovich, it is not a confirmed fact. The information comes second-hand from a neurologist friend of Shostakovich’s doctor (allegedly) and has never been verified with solid evidence. Dammit! I want it to be true! So why the mystery? It’s possible that the Soviet propaganda machine kept it a secret, or perhaps that Shostakovich himself didn’t feel the need to share it with every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Who knows? Either way, it lies somewhere in the vast ambiguous space between myth and truth.

We’ll conclude this Music Monday with three minutes of sublime tenderness. From Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite, this is “Romance”, and it will improve your day tenfold. Enjoy ūüôā

8 thoughts on “Dmitri’s Beautiful Brain

  1. Bill says:

    Some very brilliant, creative people in Russia and the former Soviet Union have subscribed to a number of beliefs concerning the mind and its functions that might raise eyebrows in the West. This link provides something of a general overview — but only briefly touches upon the history of parapsychology among top-flight Russian/Soviet chessplayers. (Like you, though, I don’t possess any professional expertise in this area and can offer no judgments.)

    http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2002166501_hypnotic01.html

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      Thanks for the link! A strange but interesting article. I’ve long held a weird fear of hypnosis. I know it has an extensive history in psychoanalysis and has had positive effects in some areas, but the thought of having my consciousness altered in that way freaks me out! It’s the same attitude I have toward mind-altering drugs like LSD, etc. Booze and wine, on the other hand, are just fine in my book ūüėÜ

      Again, thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  2. fredh1 says:

    What a gorgeous piece of music. Definitely keep the shard, Dmitri!

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      It’s so incredibly beautiful, isn’t it? My Mom has fallen in love with it. Yeah, I’d keep the shrapnel too if this is the melodic result!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Claudia

  3. Stephen says:

    I am listening David Oistrakh play Violin Concerto No 1 by Shostakovich (thanks to YouTube) – What gut-wrenchingly beautiful music

  4. bob palevitz says:

    claudia, you are a gentle, intelligent, beautiful person. i thank you for all
    your insights and depth of knowledge in your writings. i have forgotten
    this shostakovich piece heard many times in my long russian heritage past. xxx. recently i have been listening over and over to lyiyine price
    1987 Car. Hall performance of “somewhere” (west side story) youtube.

  5. bob palevitz says:

    sorry it’s Leontyne Price

    • artmodel says:

      Bob, I knew who you meant, sweetie! And did she have a voice!
      I’m happy that I reminded you of this Shotakovich piece which is so very beautiful and touching. My Mom has fallen in love with it.

      See you soon, and thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

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