“Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man’s soul. Its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out.” Ayn Rand, “Art and Moral Treason” from The Romantic Manifesto
“The importance of that experience is not in what he learns from it, but in that he experiences it. The fuel is not a theoretical principle, not a didactic ‘message,’ but the life-giving fact of experiencing a moment of metaphysical joy—a moment of love for existence.” Ayn Rand, “The Goal of My Writing” from The Romantic Manifesto
I first became interested in classical music around the age of six. I do not remember what exactly sparked my interest in classical music, but it somehow left such an impression on me that I became determined to learn how to play the piano. I have been told that I would not rest until my parents enrolled me in piano lessons. Looking back now, my love of classical music and my passion for playing the piano are perhaps the only things that have remained constant throughout my life. They were part of me long before I came across Objectivism, before most of my other interests developed, and before I decided what career I wanted to pursue.
While I enjoy listening to most eras of classical music, I realized from a young age that the style I find most riveting is that of the Romantic period. Pieces that especially resonate with me are those created by Romantic composers including Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Beethoven, who is considered the bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods. The works of these masters are the pieces that have always spoken to me in a way that is unrivaled by any other music I have come across. Even at the age of six, long before I could cognitively understand why I was drawn to this music, I was acutely aware that I was enthralled by this particular style. However, while I loved listening to this music, I knew on some level that passively listening to it was not enough. I wanted to become as connected to these wonderful, seemingly magical works of art as possible. For me, this meant I had to become a pianist. I desired to one day be able to play these pieces myself. I began piano lessons around the age of six or seven, continuing with them and participating in competitions and recitals until the age of 18.
I continue to play as often as I can, making time for the piano even if it means losing a few hours of sleep. If there is one thing that is worth losing sleep over, it’s this – something that one becomes completely engrossed in, that grips one’s soul, invigorates one’s spirit, and makes one feel so incredibly invincible and full of life. When I’m playing, it’s as though I’m on top of the world and nothing can touch me, as if all of the pain and disappointment I’ve encountered in the past have no relevance compared to this wonderfully elevated state of existence. The piano is my one escape – not from reality and not from the good, but from the bad, the ugly, the mediocre, from all the non-essentials. Playing the piano is when I feel the most whole, the most alive, the most like myself.
Part of what makes playing the piano so fulfilling is the emotional release it provides for me. Whenever I’m mentally and physically exhausted, the piano is the first thing I turn to because of its unparalleled therapeutic effects. When I begin playing, it always seems to make things worse at first, intensifying my emotions and creating more mental and physical tension. But after playing for long enough, the sting of the initial exacerbation fades and the experience becomes a therapeutic release, providing relief to my emotional strain. When the emotion driving the particular piece matches my emotional state perfectly, the result is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, hitting me so deeply it’s as if my heart is bleeding out over the piano keys. The emotional tension is faced with its musical equivalent and is cast into oblivion. When I finish, I feel rejuvenated and relaxed. The tension has vanished, and I’m at peace with myself and the world once again.
The power of music is a fascinating thing, and the experience of playing the piano is a profoundly personal and intimately emotional one. Sometimes it’s an incredibly uplifting, purely positive experience such that I become awash with a reverence for life. Other times it’s a gut-wrenching, heartrending, soul-baring experience in which the breath is knocked out of me. Both are satisfying in their own unique way. While the latter involves some degree of pain, it’s the best kind of pain possible – an all-consuming torment that reminds me that I’m alive and that my life is worth fighting for, despite the suffering I may encounter along the way. It’s a fiercely intense experience, and rightly so, because life is intense.
When I’m not playing the piano, I’m often listening to Romantic classical music. While passively listening to music is not nearly as satisfying as playing a piece myself, I have found that it provides me with inspiration and makes me more productive as a result. Certain pieces in particular touch me more deeply than others. A few examples are: Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27 in D-flat major, No. 2; Beethoven’s Lento assai, cantante e tranquilo, the third movement of his String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135; Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation, Andante cantabile, from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in D-flat major, Op. 43; Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64 in C-sharp minor, No. 2; Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18; and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (below). From watching these musicians perform, I would guess that they experience something similar to what I do when playing the piano. It’s visible from their facial expressions and body language, from the way the music moves through them, that this art has strongly impacted them. The fact that there are others who experience this music as intensely as I do, who feel life as deeply as I do, is extremely encouraging. While I can’t speak for them, this kind of life-affirming art seems to make the world come to a stop. It touches my soul in places I never even knew existed, brings a heightened meaning to the concept of being alive, and refuels and reawakens my spirit. The result is spectacular: it elevates life to a wonderful state of existence where everything unimportant – all of the ugliness and pain – fades away. What is left is the great, the beautiful, the ideal – the essentials of life. In the end, this art reconnects me with myself and with the world I’m working to create.
Rand described art as fuel for the spirit. Some view art as an unnecessary indulgence, but I consider it to be a profoundly vital human need. In a world where so much seems to degrade the human spirit, where the potential of individuals is too often forgotten, and where greatness is too frequently traded in for mediocrity, art like this reminds me that I must never let go of my vision. There are so many distractions that threaten to pull us away from reaching our goals, but we must remember to never lose sight of our purpose. We need sources of inspiration to remind us of the value of life and to motivate us to keep fighting that which tries to stop us from reaching our potential. Find art that speaks to your soul, that wipes away everything trivial and reconnects you with what is important. The right kind of art, the kind that touches the soul and provides fuel for the spirit, rekindles our passion and curiosity for life and allows us to remain focused and determined. Once you find your purpose in life, search for sources of inspiration to help you hold onto it. Find refuge in the extraordinary – seek out those things that set your soul on fire and remind you of the meaning of life. Find your passion, find the inspiration to fuel your passion, and never let go of either.
“In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged