Angel with No Name

The name of one of music’s most beautiful sets of sonatas is unknown. Written in the 1670s–no one is sure of exactly when–the only manuscript we have of it was donated to a German library in 1890. The title page was missing, so we cannot tell what the composer called it. The dedication page survives, so we do know who composed it, a German (or was he Czech?) musician named Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 – 1704), remembered chiefly for his technically demanding works for the violin.

The music in question is certainly demanding. The set consists of 15 sonatas for violin and bass, all in different tunings of the violin strings, each one representing a sacred event or “mystery” from the Catholic rosary. Thus it is sometimes called “The Mystery Sonatas,” which seems apt given how little we know about it. After the 15 sonatas for the rosary comes a concluding piece for solo violin in standard tuning, representing the guardian angel. It is one of the most ravishing works in the classical repertoire. Listen for yourself to this gorgeous performance by Elicia Silverstein:


Ms Silverstein will be appearing at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on December 15, 2017.

The concluding piece is in the form of a passacaglia, about which more later. In the surviving printed version, the piece is proceeded by an engraving of an angel, leading a child by the hand, providing care and counsel. Here is the engraving:

The name “passacaglia” refers to the structure of the composition. It features a melody flowing over a repeated bass part. The bass motif is called an “ostinato,” which is the Italian word for “obstinate,” since it refuses to go away. In this piece the ostinato is also played by the violin since there is no accompaniment. Look at the descending notes in the first bar of the first page of the score and you will see it. Then look at how those notes show up in every succeeding bar, no matter how complex the melody above it becomes. You just can’t leave it behind, which is why the piece is so demanding.

The descending ostinato is called a “lament bass,” because the downward motion is thought to give it a poignant feeling. I don’t hear it as sad so much as delicate and spiritual, like the angel floating down from heaven. There is a four-note version and a six-note version of the lament bass. I prefer the four-note version, which has been used many, many times in musical history, from the baroque to the present. Here is a clear and fun example.

I collect sets and parts of sets of The Mystery Sonatas. They vary widely in how they are realized. The sonatas are sometimes accompanied by one bass instrument, such as a lute, and sometimes by as many as four instruments, such as a harp, archlute, viola da gamba and keyboard–practically an orchestra. Most sets vary the instruments from sonata to sonata to avoid tedium, so for example, a harpsichord in one sonata might be replaced by an organ in another.

I was originally drawn to the versions that had the complex bass accompaniment, looking for a rich sound. Here is a good example by Patrick Bismuth. The sonata has two movements. The second, starting at 2:02, begins with an ostinato that is written to be played once before the violin enters. In Bismuth’s version, it is developed ten times by an increasing number of instruments, until it becomes its own set of variations on a theme, creating great anticipation for the violin. This sonata celebrates the coming of an angel to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she is to be the mother of the Christ.

(Note that the picture accompanying the video shows a gargoyle or some other medieval monster. The Mystery Sonatas were not written in the Middle Ages, but in the seicento, the seventeenth century, after the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and Galileo. As a side note, in the 1500s, Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and something of a physicist himself, laid some of the theoretical foundations for modern music.)

More recently I was drawn to one of the simpler versions of a sonata, with Dmitry Sinkovsky on violin accompanied by Luca Pianca on lute. Watch Sinkovsky play. His body coils and uncoils with the energy of the music and his eyes are gazing off into Heaven.

The Mystery Sonatas, especially the passacaglia of the Guardian Angel, have proven to be an irresistible challenge for contemporary violinists who play baroque music. There are at least two dozen sets available on Amazon. Not as many as of The Four Seasons to be sure, but quite a few for what is sometimes considered “specialty” music. This may be the best classical music most people have never heard of, and it is well worth exploring.

I invite my readers to leave examples of soaringly spiritual music in the comments, and I will add links here at the end of the essay. Don’t leave a long list; just send the one that your guardian angel gave you!

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is an off-Broadway musical that my wife and I recently saw in Washington, DC. It stars Miche Braden as the great blueswoman as well as three on-stage musicians who occasionally contribute dialogue. Interspersed between dynamic performances of Smith’s songs, Braden tells in the first person the story of Smith’s life from childhood to death. The narrative frame is that on the last night of her life, Smith was supposed to play an all-white venue. The manager tells her she must enter by the back door, so Smith walks off and goes to a black nightclub where the action is set.

My wife and I stayed after the show for a discussion with the playwright, the theater’s dramaturge and its artistic director. We learned that the play was a group effort: Angelo Parra developed the script in collaboration with director Joe Brancto and Ms. Braden after many readings and run-throughs. Braden arranged the music, nudging Smith’s songs in the direction of jazz and rhythm & blues to make them more varied and accessible.

I deliberately did not read up on Bessie Smith before writing this essay, although I listened to a few of her songs. I want to discuss the show as a self-contained production and use it as a jumping off point for some observations of my own. The Smith I refer to here is the one in the show, not the historical one. I hasten to add that I am not an expert on the blues, although I think I know in a general way what they are about.

“The devil’s music” is what some black churchgoers called black popular music like the blues. And it is the devil’s music by Christian standards: it embraces sex, violence, booze—and despair. Despair is a sin for some Christians because it implies that you think God is not omnipresent and good. But the blues stares despair in the face and sings right through it, without denying it. To many bluesmen, I imagine, those stiff-with-starch churchgoers seemed repressed to the point of being deluded, if not downright hypocritical.

The Smith of the show was a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed woman who liked both men and other women, but she could sing the roof off. She proved that, despite conventional prejudice, big, curvy women can be sexual powerhouses. The most memorable number in the production was “St. Louis Blues,” in which Braden and sexophonist—pardon me, saxophonist—Anthony Nelson, Jr. chase each other around the stage in a lascivious pas de deux.

In keeping with the nature of the blues, Smith was a warrior in the battle of the sexes, trading physical and emotional violence with her husband, but she was devoted to her adopted son, whom she called “Snooks.” Her husband vengefully had her son taken away from her by the authorities on the grounds of her moral unfitness as a mother. This is one of many painful moments in Smith’s life, and watching Braden portray Smith begging the judge to let her keep her child is heartbreaking.

The Bessie of The Devil’s Music is what I call “exquisite”—a perfect embodiment of a human quality. Bessie’s exquisite quality is that she lived the “lusty, lustful life.” “Lusty” does not mean “lustful.” It means “healthy and strong; full of vigor.” Smith was loaded with energy, she enjoyed sex with many different people, and she drank more than her share of “white lightning.” And of course, she made passionate music. (For more about the exquisite, see this essay.)

The video embedded above is of acceptable quality, but this video of a reimagined version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in a blues style with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox will give you a better idea of the power of Braden’s singing.

The conflict of the staid churchgoer versus the lusty, lustful blues singer is an obvious instance of the soul-body dichotomy. According to this dichotomy human beings are a composite of an other-worldly soul and an earthy, earthly body. These components pull in opposite directions, with the soul usually trying to accept God’s will and the body indulging itself in the sins of the flesh. This view goes back at least to Plato, although it reached its obvious pinnacle in Christianity.

Many people who believe in this dichotomy try to reconcile or accommodate the warring factors, but many put one factor over the other, perhaps alternately. Either they suppress their bodily urges and spend a lot of time praying, or they give in to their bodily urges and just occasionally feel guilty and reach out for some kind of reassurance from the divine.

(“Bodily urges” here does not just sex and alcohol. It’s not simple hedonism. Dancing and smoking would count, too. And, of course, rousing, worldly music.)

This is of course a false dichotomy and it denies the possibility of rational, secular happiness and responsibility. Starting in the 18th century, with the Age of Reason, the tension between the warring factors lessened and the possibility of pursuing a refined happiness in this world became credible to many educated people in the West. The rising tide of political liberty in that era made it possible to build a rational life, and thus encouraged people to abandon the soul/body dichotomy or at least to relegate it to the status of a token belief, ritually observed.

The error of pitting soul against body is excusable in Bessie’s situation because of the circumstances black Americans found themselves in the first third of the twentieth-century, when both Jim Crow and the blues reached their zenith. Black people weren’t for the most part free to prosper in a worldly manner, and only a small fraction found a way to do so. It was, for example, very difficult for black people to enter the professions or to achieve a top position in the building trades. Oppressed and denied access to many of the good things in life, they would understandably be tempted to turn to the comforts of religion or to a celebration of life in the raw, sometimes both on different days.

(I am of course over-generalizing and exaggerating here. Many black people made different choices and were not impaled on the soul/body dichotomy. Furthermore, the same conflict existed in the white community too, but the greater opportunities that most white people had compared to most black people made their choices less stark.)

However, Bessie Smith was more than a tragic philosophical error. The woman was a force of nature. She had that pre-philosophical fire. It was not entirely directed at its proper objects or well integrated by the standards of a rational philosophy, but it was powerful. She made art. She didn’t give in to oppression. She stood up to the KKK. She created her own touring show with musicians and dancers and managed it well. She got her own railroad car so she and her company wouldn’t have to find a colored hotel. She refused to go in through the back door. But we cannot escape the fact of her dissolute lifestyle.

Did she have to be dissolute? One might cite Smith’s contemporary, the polished black singer Paul Robeson as a counter-example, since he was successful, stable, and not dissolute. But Robeson was the son of a minister and went to Rutgers on an academic scholarship. Bessie was an orphan who danced for coins in the street. And even Robeson’s greatest successes were with Negro spirituals and Broadway songs where he played a slave.

I mentioned that Bessie had the pre-philosophical life force. Some of my readers may think that there is nothing that exists that is “pre-philosophical.” But there is. Life is pre-philosophical. As I wrote in the essay linked above: “We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our zeal for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely wanting not to die.” Bessie may not have had a good philosophy, but she certainly had passion.

Bessie’s life would probably have been different if she lived in a more rational culture, but she didn’t. What happens if fully developed, practical reason is not encouraged, or even allowed, in a human life? Then the life force will gush like a volcano erupting in all directions. It’s still powerful, but not well ordered.

So am I justifying Smith taking the side of the flesh in the false dichotomy? Aren’t I leaving out the common sense secular life? Couldn’t Bessie have found a career selling hair care products? (That’s what Madam C.J. Walker, the most successful African American woman of the time, did.)

I think not. The artistic temperament craves self-expression of the kind that cannot find an outlet in conventional, commercial endeavors. Like black churchgoers on the other side of the false dichotomy, Bessie had something to proclaim. Not praise for God, to be sure, but assertion of her own self, a self that stood up and said, “Here I am, world. You can destroy me, but you can’t defeat me.”

For many, music is the form that such a proclamation will take. But why the blues? Couldn’t she have expressed herself through a more refined genre of music? Well, putting aside the unwarranted elitism that question implies, I would have to say that Bessie Smith was not going to become an opera diva. She was going to work within the genres of her time and place, and become what she was: “the Empress of the Blues.”

And it’s hard to separate the music from the lifestyle. If you’re on the road, it’s difficult to maintain a monogamous relationship. If you work at night, you’re likely to sleep during the day. If you need something to keep you up when you are onstage and to help you come down when you’re off, you’re likely to turn to alcohol or drugs. Because the performing life is both ecstatically emotional and boringly routine, it is a roller coaster, and it is too much to expect that someone in Bessie’s situation is going to lead a “normal” life.

No, it seems that we do have to excuse at least some of Bessie’s decadence. But that sounds so condescending! You don’t want to condescend to a force of nature, not to her face, and not to her ghost’s face either. We might say that Bessie lived in a tragic situation, but we should not even hint that she was pathetic. We have to say that, whatever her flaws, Smith deserved respect. You might not hold her up as a model for your children, but you should let yourself feel a deep kinship with her life force and the way in which she expressed it.


The real Bessie Smith

I keep emphasizing the dissolute side of Bessie Smith in order to pose a question: Why do those of us who have stable middle-class secular lives love Bessie’s music and her spirit? Why do we embrace the earthiness and even the vulgarity? The answer may seem obvious: Because it’s good. But that isn’t obvious. We happy moderns do not live the blues like many of Bessie’s generation did. We would never approve of such behavior in our children, so why do we enjoy the spectacle of it?

Perhaps the reason we love Bessie and the blues has to do with something lacking in our lives. We’ve left behind the energetic life of our forebears. Most educated people do not believe in a literal soul/body dichotomy, but we live a mind/body dichotomy. In our era, many of us sit in offices or at least do brainwork indoors detached from our bodies. And then to take care of our bodies, we go to the gym, which is an intellectual and spiritual wasteland.

Think of the famous quote from Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.” That’s taking the matter too far, but there is some truth to it. Passion wants to get out unless it’s defeated. In the last century or so, primarily through the vehicle of African American music, the whole world has broken through its desperation and begun to sing its song.

Maybe most adults would not allow their children to lead the lusty, lustful life, but they do so anyway. Some white kids of the last few decades, who’ve never been oppressed and who’ve had much greater educational opportunities, have chosen the lusty, lustful, self-expressive life, too. As one member of the audience pointed out after the show, many classic rock stars are rather similar to Smith. Their choices are understandable, at least up to the point where actual self-destructiveness begins. In modern society, few places exist for a young person with outsized passion and a desire for self-expression to go. I suppose one could pursue a career in classical music, but that is not a live option for most people, and anyway very few classical musicians get to be at the front of the stage, performing their hearts out. Our culture is certainly not as bereft of rational influences as the culture of Bessie’s time, but we have little place for ecstatic overflow in today’s ultra-controlled world.

One way to integrate soul/mind and body is to take Bessie’s devilish life and treat it like art. This is still a form of entente between mind and body, not a perfect blending, but that may be the best that can be achieved, since few activities in life tap into physical, intellectual and emotional energy all at the same time. I would say that showcasing someone like Bessie Smith in a “normal” middle-class theater is not settling for second best, and I don’t think it is condescending: it is an appreciation of what is humanly possible, a celebration, an embracing of that passion that makes all else possible.

That’s what the devil’s music does for us. It lets us bear witness to passion. And maybe, if we fan the spark, it will help us to kindle passion within ourselves.

(Note: The Devil’s Music does not seem to be touring as of this writing, but if you get a chance to see it, seize it.)

The Goddess of Love Makes Heroes of Us All

One of the world’s most famous videos, at least outside of the US, is for A.R. Rahman’s song “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” from the Indian movie Dil Se. Dil Se (From the Heart), which was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, concerns a radio news producer (played by superstar Shahrukh Khan) who falls in love at first sight with a mysterious woman (Mannish Koirala) whom he meets at a railroad station. I am going to spoil the story here, so skip to the next paragraph if you plan to see the movie. The producer pursues the woman for a week and gradually finds out that she, having been raped by Indian soldiers as a girl, has joined an insurgency against the government. She plans to be a suicide bomber. In the end our protagonist begs her not to blow herself up and to come away with him. He embraces her as the bomb explodes, killing them both. You can read more details about the film here.

Although the movie features a number of song-and-dance sequences, it is not Bollywood fluff. Our protagonist is a serious person and gets beaten up and drugged in his quest for the woman he loves. The political and military conflict in the film is realistic and frightening.

The video sequence comes a few minutes into the movie. Our protagonist has just been rebuffed by the mysterious woman and is standing in the rain, when apparently he has a vision, starring himself. Note that despite the label, this version does not contain subtitles.

The title of the song, “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” means “[Walk in] the Shade,” and it speaks in poetic terms of the beloved. It states that when one walks in the shade (or shelter) of love, one’s feet are in heaven, and continues in the same vein. I cannot find a version of the video with running English subtitles, so here is the song without the action but with the subtitles. Slightly frustrating, but it’s worth listening to the song twice anyway.

As you can see, the number was filmed on top of a moving train. What is not so obvious is that it was filmed without CGI or rear screen projections. It is just what it appears to be. The vocals were dubbed by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.

The flowing train and the rhythmic song and dance induce a lucid trance in me, an integration of the apollonian and the dionysian. The female dancer, played by Malaika Arora, is not a character in the film. She is not our protagonist’s lady love. She does not show up again, not even in another musical number. Her presence has been construed by some critics as a stage in Arabic poetry’s idea of the journey of love. I am of course distorting this symbolism by Westernizing it, but for me she is an Aphrodite, a Goddess of Love.

Our Goddess is frankly sexual, showing off her breasts, midriff and hips. Yet she is in no way lewd. She represents the ideal of healthy Eros. She gazes upon our hero, and he appreciates her charms, but they are not flirting. He, after all, adores someone else. I take it that she is a divine inspiration, which means, as the etymology suggests, that she is filling him with spirit, the spirit of love.

And inspired our protagonist is. He is moved to great eloquence in the song. At 3:25 he assumes a heroic stance on the locomotive, solitary and proud. The Goddess has turned an ordinary man into a hero. His perseverance and willingness to suffer in order to win his beloved is similarly heroic, demonstrating the connection between passion and heroism as it is commonly understood: the willingness to risk all in the quest for an ideal.

“Chaiyya, Chaiyya” has been covered and re-used in many different places, including, incongruously, in the Spike Lee film Inside Man. But nothing can top the original context of the elevation and journey of romantic love.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Heroes and Shipwrecks: Beethoven and Ayn Rand

When I got my copy of Leonard Peikoff and Michael Berliner’s Understanding Objectivism a few years ago I learned that it’s OK for an Objectivist to like Beethoven even though Ayn Rand didn’t. What a relief! I was on the verge of putting all my Beethoven CDs through the shredder!

Seriously, I am glad that Peikoff cleared that up, even though I never let Rand’s dislike of Beethoven stop me from loving him. (But I did allow Rand’s affection for Rachmaninoff to influence me into trying to like him more than I did.) I fear, however, that some of Rand’s followers have followed her particular tastes in an uncritical manner.

Obviously, it is not proper, even for an Objectivist like myself, to fall on every concrete tidbit that drops from Ayn Rand’s lips as if it were Holy Writ. Principles are what people should be interested in, not personal tastes. But even so, it is worth considering Rand’s opinion on almost any subject, teasing out what she meant, putting it in context, and seeing whether it has any applications to one’s life–even if only to dismiss that opinion when one is through (as in, for example, her views on homosexuality).

Rand’s opinion of Beethoven was, that his music has a “malevolent universe,” i.e. it portrayed a world where success and happiness are impossible, where we doomed in our struggles, even though we might perish heroically. (Objectively Speaking, p. 127, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz.) I am not sure what of Beethoven’s music she based this on–she said she heard it in “practically everything he had written”–but we can assume that she was familiar with his Fifth Symphony, with its famous strife-ridden first movement, which Germans characterize as “fate knocking on the door.”

Let us focus on that symphony as a stand-in for all of Beethoven’s work. That is not altogether unfair for the purposes of this discussion, since it is by far the work most people are familiar with, even though it would be a bad idea in general to take a single work as representative of a composer’s output. My contention is that we can see a surprising similarity between Beethoven’s sense of life, as represented in the Fifth Symphony, and Rand’s, as represented in Atlas Shrugged, even if Rand herself did not experience it that way.

Personally, I love the opening movement of the Fifth. It is extremely dramatic, and if it is strife-ridden, it is also striving. I can see how somebody might hear it as heroic but doomed to defeat, but the music doesn’t mesh with my sensibilities in that way. Instead I see it as part of a titanic struggle but not one where defeat is portrayed as inevitable. However, I would concede that this movement could legitimately be understood as a doomed struggle by some people. Almost everybody is familiar with the beginning of the first movement. It is worth listening to a recording of the whole of it, however. I like this video with score animation, because it makes it easier for people like me, who can’t read music, to follow along with the different threads in the tapestry.

Rand might have heard it differently from the way I do. Perhaps it meshed with her sensibilities in a way that made it appear heroic but futile.

“Sensibilities” are a complex, not a simplex. They are formed by one’s sense of life, which can be tragic, heroic, comedic, dreamy, and so forth in a thousand more subtle hues. In addition, sensibilities are formed by one’s experiences. (For example, I was so underexposed to classical music as a boy that I found the Brandenburg Concertos, which are quite accessible, too daunting in college.) And they are formed by what you could call “cognitive style,” by which I mean the manner of processing reality that one feels to be natural (a scientist, for example, focuses on the world in a different manner from an artist, even though both can be under the broad umbrella of the rational). No doubt one could add other factors.

There is no one right sense of life, no one right level of experience (since we all specialize in different things), and no one right cognitive style. As such there is no one right sensibility, and so, within limits, it is inappropriate to criticize someone’s taste in art. There are some limits to the foregoing, however, because some senses of life, levels of experience and cognitive styles are based on mistaken premises or are not life-promoting. For example, a person can be too intelligent to find completion in genre fiction and therefore need to grow. Or, to take another, balder example, the musical niche called death metal is a sign of a morbid sense of life that must be healed. Be that as it may, within such limits, a thoughtful, curious, nonjudgmental response to other people’s sensibilities is in order. This situation most obtains in music, because out of all the arts, we have the least understanding of how it wrings its effects.

Thus, something that some people love can just rub other people the wrong way and, again, within limits, there’s no right or wrong to it. Furthermore, I don’t think we have the tools to answer the question of why a given person loves or hates a given piece of music or composer or even musical period, I suppose we could guess the reason sometimes, but that would be highly speculative, and I am not going to speculate about Ayn Rand’s inner life here. At this point in time the matter seems irreducibly “subjective”–although that will probably change eventually with advances in neurology and cognitive science. But even if we can someday explain a person’s taste, that doesn’t mean that, again within limits, we can say that one taste is better than another. Having said this, I do think that it can fairly be expected of people that they try to explore and grow in their tastes, no matter what their starting point.

To follow up with a personal example, I know people who love the late Romantics–Wagner, Bruckner, and the like–but with occasional exceptions I cannot stand them. To me they seem bombastic and too much about emotion, and there’s no granularity to them: their music is all big, gushy sweeps of sound. Give me baroque music any time: rational, particulate, yet passionate in a self-aware way. This is music that gives the mind something to do instead of demanding that it feel what the composer dictates. However, despite my visceral dislike of late Romantic music, I appreciate its competence and can grasp its beauty in an abstract way. Furthermore, I understand how some people can find the baroque music I love tinkly or precious.

It would be interesting to correlate taste in music with other aesthetic tastes. For example, I love intricate, geometric visual designs, such as photographer David Stephenson’s pictures of domes. The picture on the cover of Stephenson’s book resonates for me with the geometric nature of baroque music and the grandeur of Beethoven’s both.

View this amazing book’s interior on Amazon.

What Rand was listening to when she made her evaluation of Beethoven is a bit of a mystery to me. It almost seems as if all Rand knew was that somewhat ominous opening music to the Fifth. I suppose one could find the slow opening of the Moonlight Sonata to be sad or the marching rhythm of the second movement of the Seventh Symphony to be funereal. I can only hope that that was not true for Rand, since to me (and I think to most listeners) they are not sad, but contemplative and majestic.

Going back to the Fifth, we should discuss it as a whole, and not take the famous first movement out of context. We wouldn’t read Part One of Atlas Shrugged and stop there, would we? It would appear to be a rather dark story if we did. Unfortunately, we don’t have a language to communicate our impressions of the symphony in. But maybe we do.

It’s hard to write about music objectively, but sometimes a gifted author can provide impressions of it in the form of metaphors, and we might find it illuminating to read what he says. E.M. Forster, in his 1910 novel Howard’s End, may just do the job. Some readers who do not know the novel may remember the 1992 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The story is a symbolic treatment of the question of which class is going to inherit England, represented by a house called Howard’s End.

In Chapter V of the novel, several of the characters attend a concert that features Beethoven’s Fifth on the bill. I am going to edit the scene heavily and just present the character Helen’s impressions of the music, because it is so interesting to see a great writer like Forster translate music into words.These passages do not exactly reflect my experience of the symphony, but they are close enough to form the basis of a discussion.

“For the Andante [slow second movement] had begun–very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third… Helen said to her aunt: ‘Now comes the wonderful [third] movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing’; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum…

“’[L]ook out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

“For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then–he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

“And the goblins–they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes
[industrialist characters], or ex-President [Theodore] Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return–and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

“Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

“She read it as a tangible statement, which could never be superseded. The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning. She pushed right out of the building and walked slowly down the outside staircase, breathing the autumnal air, and then she strolled home.”

The third and fourth movements of the Fifth Symphony are played without a break. Here they are. This video contains an annotated analysis of the movements which helped me better see what Beethoven was up to. It’s fascinating to follow along. Note that the annotator sees the dit-dit-dit-dah figure in the first and third movements as a “victory motif.” Helen might hear it that way in the first, but in the third she hears it as goblins tiptoeing.

So was it Beethoven’s goblins that made Rand think he was malevolent? Into every life a few goblins must fall. Rand created Dominique in The Fountainhead out of such a mood in herself, and yet Dominique has a weird kind of grandeur, because a struggle is never selfless. Dominique overcomes her goblins, as Beethoven in the Fifth does his. And as for Atlas Shrugged–there are numerous smutty little imps like James Taggart, scuttling about. And Hank Rearden faces a struggle almost as strifeful and titanic as the one portrayed in the first movement of the Fifth. The way in which Forster has Helen think of the famous first movement as “heroes and shipwrecks”—that is a great description of the first two-thirds of Rand’s novel, with Wyatt’s Torch being the foremost shipwreck (as Dagny sees it).

But like Atlas Shrugged, the Fifth Symphony ends in triumph. Most of the work is in the anxious key of C-minor, but at the beginning of the final movement we hear a C-major triad C-E-G, perhaps the most expansive and upward sounding sequence possible in such a context. You realize that all the grandeur you might associate with movie music, like John Williams’ themes from the Star Wars films, are but pale imitations of this music.

Ayn Rand began and ended Atlas Shrugged with a description of music, Richard Halley’s Fifth Concerto. The way she describes it, it could almost be Beethoven:

“It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.”

Beethoven might not portray deliverance as such in the finale of his Fifth, but he does give us the rising motion in that C-major triad and “superhuman joy.” And the goblins of Forster’s description are the ugliness and pain that could be escaped from. At least that’s how I hear it–and I think many of Beethoven’s admirers would hear it in the same way.

Halley’s Concerto would, if it were real, be wonderful spiritual fuel, but you can’t spend an entire concerto—or an entire novel—or an entire life–at this emotional pitch. Beethoven’s work is a narrative of heroes, shipwrecks, goblins, and warriors triumphant. Atlas Shrugged is a narrative of a gloomy future, the exhilaration of productive work; painful prices paid; imps; a stubborn, twisting torch; and finally non-contradictory joy. Sometimes I think Rand the artist was more emotionally complex than Rand the philosopher or even Rand the private person, better able to portray that the flame not only cannot be extinguished but also will sometimes be twisted and torn, even as it regains its hold. Success is possible, but one will always have to struggle to win it.

The Fifth Symphony and Atlas Shrugged both begin with something ominous and end in triumph, with some necessary (and realistic) negative notes mixed in—goblins in Beethoven’s case and the stranded and sobbing Eddie Willers (among other things) in Rand’s. I would go so far as to say that not only did Beethoven not believe in a malevolent universe, as Rand seems to have thought, but that his most famous work was similar to the sense of life of Rand’s most famous work. Beethoven storms the heavens and Rand rides on the John Galt Line. That’s a difference. But they both offer a dramatic, positive image of the universe with a respect for struggle. Compared to most other artists, that’s quite a similarity. That’s how the matter appears to my sensibilities; too bad they did not appear so to Rand’s.

So I guess it’s OK to like Beethoven. Not that you needed someone’s approval to do so.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life