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 😛 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:
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 🙂