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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

Heroes and Shipwrecks: Beethoven and Ayn Rand

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Ayn Rand did not like Beethoven's music. What, if anything, are we to make of that? Obviously, it is not proper, even for an Objectivist like myself, to fall on every tidbit that drops from Rand’s lips as if it were Holy Writ. Principles are what people should be interested in, not personal tastes, and even principles are not valid just because Rand espoused them. Nonetheless, 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).

As such it is a bit disappointing that Rand disliked Beethoven. Rand’s opinion 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." I seriously doubt that Rand (or most people) are familiar with "practically everything" that Beethoven wrote. But I think 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 nursery rhymes 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.

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. Interestingly one analyst refers to the dit-dit-dit-dah figure in the first and third movements as a “victory motif” and another hears it as a "fate motif." Helen might hear it as heroism or shipwrecks or both in the first, but in the third it seems to be "dancing elephants," whose function is to stamp out the goblins of the cellos and basses, which is actually a rather jolly form of heroism, if you think of it that way!

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, such as 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.

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


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