Thursday, March 12, 2009

Music in WE THE LIVING


When music and Ayn Rand are mentioned together, the first place many go is to AtIas Shrugged and hero-composer Richard HaIIey. Then Rand versus Beethoven...then Rush and 2112 and "Anthem." Then, after some more examples, we finaIIy get to We the Living.


We the Living? Yes, We the Living. Don't look at me funny like that. Actually, Michael Berliner has a whole chapter dedicated to this, "The Music of We the Living," in Robert Mayhew's book Essays on We the Living. (Ok, I'm getting tired of saying We the Living, so I'm using WTL from this point.) Anyway, WTL is chock full of musical goodness. WTL was written on the heels of Rand's days in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and is said to be "cinema-ready." (Many say the Italian movie was superior to The Fountainhead movie.) It seems Rand had the soundtrack in mind herself when writing the most novel-esque of her novels.

Unfortunately, I don't own this book, a bit pricey for me right now, and on my wishing-makes-it-so list. But there are previews of it online here (with some pages missing, on purpose, to tantalize a purchase, and tease us poor-folk). And Berliner's essay is tantalizing, as he states that WTL contains about 70 musical references, most of them real-life pieces. That's a lot of references. But beyond the story itself, Berliner, drawing on the personal papers of Ayn Rand, references how and where Rand developed these references. Apparently, Rand kept a musical biography that she called "My Musical Biography," a list of 17 songs from 1911 to 1959. Of course, most of this was "Tiddlywink" music, which included what they called "military band music" that she would hear as a youth in Russia. Berliner traces the music she heard, including the stuff she probably didn't like, in order to present just how Rand incorporated it to create the "musical aura" of "Mother Russia."

Berliner goes through the list of songs in the novel, but two particular songs stand out in Rand's "musical aura," the Russian International and "The Song of Broken Glass." These two are important, I say, because I said so. But also because they capture the polarity of Rand's approach to music; the former is proud and glorious, and the latter captures the gaiety and lightheartedness that Rand valued above all else in her "tiddlywink" selections.

The International, of course, is the piece that Kira hears at the student rally. Berliner points out that the Russian anthem, in the context of the story, is played as "the Communist student's answer to the singing by non-communist students of "Days of Our Lives"...at a student council election meeting." Here we see Rand's description of the melody:
[I]n the magnificent goblet of the music, the words were not intoxicating as wine; they were not terrifying as blood, they were gray as dishwater.
But the music was like the marching of thousands of feet, measured and steady, like drums beaten by unvarying, unhurried hands. The music was like the feet of soldiers marching into the dawn that is to see their battle and their victory; as if the song rose from under the soldier's feet, with the dust of the road, as if the soldier's feet played it upon the earth.

The tune sand a promise, calmly, with the calm of an immeasurable strength, and then, tense with a restrained, but uncontrollable ecstasy, the notes rose, trembling, repeating themselves, too rapt to be held still, like arms raised and waving in the sweep of banners.

It was a hymn with the force of a march, a march with the majesty of a hymn. It was the song of soldiers bearing sacred banners and of priests carrying swords. It was an anthem to the sanctity of strength."
The experience, for Kira, is "the first beautiful thing" she's noticed about the Revolution. This was in reaction to a real-world piece of music that affected Rand. (Incidentally, it is this example that many people, myself included, hold up in the endless debates about music and morality in relation to rock music. When a critic of rock points to the lyrics as proof of rock's no-goodness, the naysayer is reminded of the horrible, vile, evil, twisted words of the International set to a powerful tune. But to really appreciate this, it should be compared to the next example, "The Song of Broken Glass." Why? Again, because I said so. But also, because, as Berliner points out, "[t]his is a particularly intriguing inclusion because it is the only fictional piece of music in the novel and-as a consequence-has elicited considerable curiosity in its origins." Being a fictional piece of music, it represents, like the "Unfinished Symphony" of Atlas Shrugged, Rand's vision of art, not as an imitation of life as it is, but a selective re-creation. Rand mentions it several times. Berliner points out that "it is clear that it represents an ideal: promise, benevolence, an image of life as it ought to be," and that, for Kira, "it evoked the West-the spirit of a free, productive society, which stood in contrast to the grayness and horror of life in Soviet Russia."
Rand describes this song thusly:
It had been a favorite beauty of Vienna. There had been a balustrade on the stage, overlooking a drop with the twinkling lights of a big city, and a row of crystal goblets lined along the balustrade. The beauty sand the number and one by one, lightly, hardly touching them, kicked the crystal goblets and sent them flying in tingling, glittering splinters-around the tight, sheer stockings on the most beautiful legs in Europe.
There were sharp little blows in the music, and waves of quick, fine notes that burst and rolled like the thin, clear ringing of broken glass. There were slow notes, as if the cords of the violins trembled in hesitation, tense with the fullness of sound, taking a few measured steps before the leap into the explosion of laughter.
Kira hears this song several more times throughout the novel; it is, in fact, the last song she ever hears, as she lay dying in the snow in the attempt to escape Russia for the promise of "abroad":
She heard a song, a tune now loud enough to be a human sound, a song as a last battle-march. It was not a funeral dirge, it was not a hymn, it was not a prayer. It was a tune from an old operetta, the "Song of Broken Glass."

Little notes of music trembled in hesitation, and burst, and rolled in quick, fine waves, like the thin, clear ringing of glass. Little notes leaped and exploded and laughed, laughed with a full, unconditional, consummate joy.

She did not know whether she was singing. Perhaps she was only hearing the music somewhere. But the music had been a promise; a promise at the dawn of her life. That which had been promised then, could not be denied to her now.
These two songs epitomize the polarityof Rand's philosophy itself, the hard, disciplined, strong, defiantly proud defense for all that's right, and the idea that this is a benevolent universe, where happiness and joy are possible to man. Indeed, Rand's tough-as-nails approach is never for its own sake, but always in the service to pave the way for that joy. Rand was not a hedonist, so a purely decadent music could never do; the joy in her music comes after the work is done. But it also comes from an unbroken spirit, one that never questions its own right to exist, and that is why Kira hears this song in the end.

The two choices also represent where Rand was and where she was going. The Internationale was the "best" of her real-life world, "Broken Glass" represented the "best" of where she was going, the mythical "abroad" of America. Rand is said to be a "Russian" writer; beyond stating the obvious, the style of Atlas owes a lot to the Russian style of writing. The Internationale is probably a testament to that. But Rand is, more importantly, a consciously American writer, and this is reflected in the idealization of "The Song of Broken Glass." One could say there is a dynamic tension between the heavy "Russian-ness" and the light-hearted "American-ness." When she did arrive, she did attempt to write stories that reflected that light-heartedness, as witnessed in The Early Ayn Rand. Stories such as "Good Copy," "Escort," and "Her Second Career" were written as light-hearted fun, in the vain of O. Henry. But as she saw her adopted homeland seeing "red," so did she in turn, and her theme went from "tiddlywink" back to the defiance of "The International." After the publication of Atlas, and the resultant depression of seeing what the world had become, Rand found herself trying to return to that good-time feeling, with the attempted novel To Lorne Dieterling, which was abandoned. What could have been, however, would have had its roots in the musical aura already laid out in We The Living. As Berliner puts it, in that story, "music would once again achieve a dominant role, one well beyond that in We the Living." For Rand, the To Lorne Dieterling WAS music: "the universe of my 'tiddlywink' music...of my sense of life."
Berliner mentions more songs, including "The Days of Our Life" (aka "Swift as the Waves"), "God Save the Czar," "John Gray," and "Destiny Waltz." He also points out the influence of classical music, namely the work of Verdi and Chopin, which appear in the novel. Berliner points out something interesting here, that while Rand did not come to appreciate classical music until after she arrived in America, classical music plays an important part in Kira's background. Rand has Uncle Vasili proclaim that "Yes, old classics are still the best. In those days, they had culture, and moral values, and...and integrity."

This is interesting for two reasons: one, because it reflects on Rand's "bourgeouise" background, and this proclamation, within the context of the story, would be used to show the class warfare of Soviet Russia. It's also interesting because it's tempting to think that this is Rand's own attitude. But Rand's "tiddlywink" music was held by her in higher regard to her classical favorites, so any attempt to take this statement as Rand's "objective declaration to the superiority" of one musical form over another has to be weighed against her personal preferences. Rand may have been of "bourgeuoise" background (and detested rock music), but it should be pointed out that the "lost novel" was to center around the "La Traviata Overture" by Verdi, but also featured the song "Will O' the Wisp," a "tiddlywink" piece that was to be used for a dance in a dive bar. Actually, Rand, in her journals, had written that these were "the two basic 'sense of life' music numbers," that "Will O' the Wisp" was to be "the triumph, the achieved sense of life" and that "La Traviata Overture" was "the way there." Her description of "Will O' the Wisp" is "the triumph-the tap dance and ballet combined-my total sense of life. (Probably, danced in a low-grade dive...).

This, I submit, would have been a symmetrical parallel to the two featured songs in WTL, again concretizing the "way there" and the "triumph." The odd thing, though, is that the "low-grade dive" IS the achievement, not the "classical" piece. This is only odd, though, if, like Uncle Vasili, one sees the work of the masters as unsurpassable. Rand, the slayer of false dichotomies, however, listened with ears that heard beyond class boundaries. It is why Howard Roark can be so tense and strong, yet open the The Fountainhead with a laugh. It is one more example of how Rand the Russian became Rand the American.

That could be a song in itself...

3 comments:

  1. Really interesting article, Joe. Thanks!

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  2. Your welcome, Laure, and thank you.

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  3. very interesting. I love Rand's Romantic Manifesto and her philosophy of art. The song choices in WTL seem to contrast this vision of life that is very black and white, or at least since that is usually her intention, she does this very well. I find WTL way more discriptive of the actual Ayn Rand and her romanticized look on Soviet Russia and life in general, over her idealized and yet still great more famous novels.

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